Friday, February 5 2016

What is ancient philosophy?

My recent talk at Watkins bookshop, exploring the spirit of ancient Greek philosophy.

The book of the talk:


Wednesday, February 3 2016

"I am large, I contain multitudes."

Science Set Free On Family Constellations

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing family constellations.

We look at how we are not individuals but rather are more like nodes in networks: we are connected across living systems of families, organisations, cultures and spiritual traditions. The discussion focuses particularly on family constellations therapy, a way of examining how blocks and difficulties in life can be related to elements that we have taken on board from others. Rupert examines how this idea of inherited unconscious memory reveals what he has investigated as morphic fields. Mark asks how what is revealed in constellations workshops can be related to insights that can be traced back through psychotherapy to Plato and before.

Mark's next constellations workshop is on Saturday March. 5. Full details here.


Tuesday, January 26 2016

New stuff at the Idler

The new Idler magazine is launched today. I've a piece on Socrates and his unexpected relationship with the priestess Diotima. Plato says she was key to his life. You'll hardly hear her discussed by philosophers today.

Starting next month, I'll be leading two classes at Pedlars, one of the new venues for The Idler Academy - first on psychotherapy, then on ancient philosophy. Do consider signing up.


Thursday, January 14 2016

Constellations workshop, March 5th

Constellations is a type of therapy that provides a way of looking at the issues we experience in life as a puzzle, or block, or struggle, or anxiety. They might be personal or work-related, to do with relationships or past events.

Mark runs regular constellations workshops, as a chance to take a fresh look at these troubles, one that is complementary to other kinds of therapy or quest. The next workshop is on Saturday 5th March. Full details and booking here. For further information or questions email him here.

Participants in constellations workshops frequently find what emerges to be unexpected, illuminating and liberating. To attend a workshop, you do not need to have a particular issue in mind. In fact, during a workshop only 5 or so participants will have a chance directly to look at their question. But other members of the group can be involved during the course of the day and, in fact, often find that they indirectly gain great benefit from being so. It explores how each of us belongs to networks of other people, times and places, with whom our lives are intimately bound.

To put it a little more technically, constellations is a systemic therapy: it looks at our experience of life as the product of wider family and cultural systems. Things can become difficult or go wrong when our place in these systems becomes problematic for one reason or another - perhaps because of family secrets, traumatic events, injustices, or relationship breakdowns. It's an aspect of our existence that is crucial and yet infrequently considered in our otherwise rather individual-focused times.

I can honestly say that it will be fascinating and moving. These events always are. If you have an interest in the inner life and unconscious processes, you will be engaged. You can participate as an observer, as a representation, or as an issue-holder - the level at which you bring something personally that you would like to explore.

The next workshop is on Saturday 5th March. Full details and booking here.


Friday, January 8 2016

Two new podcasts

Psychotherapy and Religion

I took part in a discussion, broadcast this week, for BBC Radio 4's Beyond Belief programme on Psychotherapy and Religion.

Science Set Free On Dreams

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing dreams - discerning dreams, precognitive dreams, telepathic dreams, dreams as accessing the unconscious. We explore how to develop practices of paying attention to dreams, and what they might show - personally and spiritually. And we ask whether taking dreams seriously inspired metaphysics and philosophy, via the tradition of incubation, practiced by figures including Parmenides.


Sunday, January 3 2016

The new year, the future, and where to find it

This short essay was broadcast by BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme today.

You'll know the joke about the lost traveler who asks a local for directions. The local replies: Well, I wouldn't start from here.

The joke works because it reflects a profound human trait. We nurture hopes and dreams, set goals and make resolutions, fixed on where we want to be. It's a tendency that becomes manic at the turn of the year. If only we didn't have to be here, now. We humans will go a long way to deny or avoid it.

It's not a modern issue. The ancient Greek philosophers identified it as a fundamental problem because it blocks human transformation. Take the Stoics. There's a clue in the name, which they got not because they celebrated the supposed virtues of the stiff-upper lip but because they taught in the stoa - the shady colonnades of the Athenian marketplace. The stoa are found in the midst of life. Like the high street or workplace this is where people routinely, mundanely find themselves to be. And this place - right here, right now - is replete with opportunities to practice the Stoic philosophy of change. It's not what happens to you that matters, but how you respond to what happens. Attend to that and the future will be different, they promised.

Take Epictetus, the Roman Stoic whose books survive because early Christians thought they provided an essential primer to anyone who sought the future promised by Jesus Christ. Epictetus asks us to consider what happens when, say, we're in the queue at the cabbage stall. You've joined that queue because the cabbages are on sale at half price. But just as you get to the front, the half price cabbages run out. What happens next?

It's a potentially life-changing moment, Epictetus explains. How do you react? Are you angry? Are you downhearted? Are you indifferent? It doesn't really matter. The point is that if you notice how you feel, you've taken the first step into a different future because you haven't habitually reacted. And it comes about because you've been able to tolerate the moment.

You could say that the Stoics argued the future is not found tomorrow. It's found today. Don't keep asking to be somewhere else. That's the existential equivalent of the local whose advice is not to start from here.

It sounds obvious. But try it. It's remarkably hard to do. And I think even more so in the modern world which is orientated towards the future to an extent our forebears couldn't have possibly imagined. Much of our economic life serves a longed-for tomorrow - when we've paid off the mortgage, reduced the national debt, can cash-in on a pension. Much of our personal life is lived similarly. I read that many people spend the new year thumbing catalogues showing sunny beaches and turquoise skies - before booking a summer holiday. Imaginatively too, the world has gone future crazy. Gizmos are sold not simply because of what they can do, but because they offer a foretaste of the better technological tomorrow guaranteed by human progress. We tire of them so quickly and have to purchase the upgrade because they leave us bereft, stranded with the reality of today.

It's a serious spiritual issue. It sends people to hell, according to Dante. In his Divine Comedy, he realises that the condemned are trapped and tortured by their obsession with their past, and by their fears for the future. The present eludes them and so nothing can change.

Sigmund Freud re-described the state of affairs in what he called the repetition compulsion. Have a look. It's shocking to realise how much of your energy actually results in things staying precisely the same. We repeat ourselves, time and time again.

In a paradoxical way, the ancient philosophers concluded that you need to forget the future to have a future. Know thyself now, was Socrates' way of putting it. Many first Christians agreed. St Luke wrote that the kingdom of God is not coming: it's already within you.

You have to trust the present to go with that. And I suppose that's another problem for we moderns - particularly amidst the hype and hopes of a new year.


Wednesday, December 23 2015

Messages of angels

Angels are everywhere at Christmas. They are on the high street and in carols. They float atop trees with wings as drifted-snow, to recall Christina Rossetti's lovely description.

But, given they are swooping and swirling in the seasonal darkness, what might we make of them? Do they merely add sparkle, like tinsel? Should they be demythologized, like the Druid's "new dawn" of the winter solstice? Well, intelligent people over many centuries have encountered something real in the angels. So hold off the scepticism for a paragraph or two...

A way into experiencing the angels is offered by looking at their prehistory. Angels can be linked to the ancient Greek entities called daemons. These weren't bad guys, as the modern word "demon" implies. Rather, they were simply go-betweens. They mediated forces and intuitions between different realms, particularly the realms of mortals and gods.

Socrates had a daemon, according to several different sources, a bit like a guardian angel. It was partly this access to seemingly otherworldly wisdom that caused him so much trouble at his trial, when he was condemned to death for 'introducing new gods to the city', a treasonous offence during times of civic unrest and war.

What's fascinating now is how his daemon communicated with him. Socrates said that it always spoke in the negative. It would tell him not to do this, or not to do that. Sometimes the messages were apparently trivial like don't leave, though not doing so led to a fruitful encounter. At other times the messages were life-changing or life-threatening. The daemon told him not to escape from prison whilst he was awaiting execution, as he easily could have done.

Socrates did not think to disobey his daemon. By the time of his death, in relative old age, he was too used to it being right. And then he realised why he should follow it, drink the hemlock and die. The manner of his death would be the greatest testament to what he had come to know. The tangible life we can see and touch, and which passes away, is only the most immediate dimension of a depth in life - the depth from which his daemon spoke in its enigmatic voice.

Contact with daemon-angels led some to regard Socrates as a magician. In the Symposium, Plato portrays Socrates as a person who had become so familiar with the work of the daemons that he too had gained the power to mediate between the visible and the invisible. But what's striking about Socrates' magical powers, his angel-like convictions, is that they arise not because he can mysteriously influence and change the world around him. Rather, he himself had been changed. He had undergone the transformation promised by philosophy. He could read the world at depth and so engage with life at a level that to others seemed uncanny. I thought the stage magician, Derren Brown, recently caught this spirit when he described how philosophy for him was about being porous to life.

How might we experience the angels today? Music is one way, which is perhaps why it is so closely associated with angels, not least at Christmas. Plato regarded music as a daemonic "science of the erotics", a notion that immediately makes sense when you recall Noel Coward's remark: "strange how potent cheap music is." Music moves us, obviously and bluntly when Robbie Williams power-ballads through Angels, or a gentle choir croons Away In A Manger. Plato called such music "the love of the streets", noting that whilst its potency is strong, it also dissipates fast.

To preserve the effects of music's more subtle messages - to be open to the angel-like muses winging on the harmony - you need to learn to absorb the nuances of melodies. Can you distinguish between the drifting Hypodorian mode (an example is REM's, Losing My Religion) and the heavenly Lydian (opening cord of The Simpson's theme)? Does the excitement of the Mixolydian (the Star Trek theme) offer a different energy to the fiery Phrygian (think Rimsky Korsakov's, Sheherazade)? To sink into these tunes, allowing them to lift and saturate you, is to experience the shifts of the divine in nature, also known as the daemons or angels, Plato suggests. It's to let go of the distractions of the visible realm, and feel the tugs and pulls of the invisible.

The angels are, therefore, experienced when we respond. This is the most obvious way that angels are encountered in the Christian tradition. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and she utters her momentous, Be it unto me according to thy word. The angels put on a celestial show for the shepherds, and they hurry to Bethlehem. Angels offer numerous warnings in the Christmas story too, notably to Joseph and the Magi. A bit like Socrates' daemon, the angels tell them what not to do: do not stay put; do not drop in again at Herod's court.

Call it intuition, call it an inner voice. I don't think it really matters because response is the key for the angels. They won't be proven. But their presence can be known when the flow of life shifts so that it's not just me making my mark on the world, but the world being allowed to make its mark in me. Examine yourself, Socrates advises, not to find yourself but to understand how you get in the way of this bigger sense of life.

Even when they provoke fearfulness, as forces and perceptions beyond oneself do, it's possible to discern and trust them. It's an intriguing possibility to test in the season of the angels.

Image: Harpocratic Eros, ca. 100–50 BC


Thursday, December 17 2015

Hope Without Optimism - book review

My short review of Terry Eagleton's latest book in the Church Times.

On every page of this study of hope, which arose from a series of four lectures, there are a dozen reflections that would each merit contemplation. It makes for a dazzling read, though one regularly punctuated by Eagleton's trademark down-to-earth witticisms. Take this line, almost at random, from the first chapter, which demolishes the optimism and faith in inevitable human progress often associated with contemporary atheistic humanism. "Progress would seem as irresistible as arthritis. We are as helpless before its unrolling as a badger before a bulldozer."

Much of the book explores the nature of hope and, for Eagleton, that is closely associated with a tragic view of human life, one in which destruction runs alongside advance; horrors alongside joys. In this frame, hope is what remains when everything else of humanity has been hacked away. It is for this reason that hope is a virtue, and lies at the heart of Christianity. "What need is there for hope when one can be author of oneself?" he asks. Rather, hope is like faith in that it calls for self-abandonment, a commitment to that which is beyond one's control. "The Abraham who takes a knife to his son's throat has hope."

In other words, you cannot hope for what you are sure will happen. But, conversely, you can rest sure in your hope. Such fundamental hope is a commitment to a view of the good that transcends any ability to grasp that good. And again, this is not to turn a blind eye to despair or terror. There is no resurrection that is not embedded in crucifixion. Eagleton: "...though death is an outrage, it is only by bowing to its necessity, in an act of self-dispossession which is at the same time the inner structure of love, that its sting can be drawn." "Hope in this sense is not a question of wishful thinking but of joyful expectation," he continues.

In what does Eagleton himself hope: the divine grace of Christian faith that builds on human nature and transfigures it, or the open contingencies of history that can always change for the better as well as the worse? He leaves readers guessing perhaps because, like Marx, he has a constitutional dislike of speculative metaphysics. And maybe it's a helpful stance. It enables him to articulate the Christian vision more precisely than many Christian writers.


Saturday, December 12 2015

Learning how to die

A Sunday Sermon for The Idler Academy.

Drear nighted. That’s how Keats described December. Grey light. Brief days. Wind whistling through empty trees. Water frozen and forgetful of “Apollo’s summer look”. It’s the month in which time slows to the still point of the solstice as if it dies.

Philosophy was about learning how to die, according to the ancient Greeks. The cycle of the seasons at this time of year offers support in the task. Crunch a stiff leaf underfoot. Watch the sun sink at teatime. Dying is all around. But can this be more than a depressing pause and the key to a flourishing life?

The philosophers’ point, in part, is that, obviously, death is a fixture that awaits us all, like the end of the year. Instead of avoiding it, in the hopeless attempt to possess and grip onto life, they promise that a fruitful embrace of death is possible. The trick is to see that “life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements, if it were all well invested,” explains the Stoic, Seneca, in his marvellous essay, “On The Shortness Of Life”.

His fellow Stoic and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, put it pithily: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” That’s the hope behind New Year’s resolutions: the desire to begin again follows on closely from a foretaste of the end and a recollection of what’s been wasted.

But the philosophers are not just interested in advice and therapy. They go further, much further. They argue that death is a pathway. Yes, learning how to die can show you how to live more fully. But it also opens the eye of the soul to an experience of life that exceeds all mundane goals and hopes.

Stoics and Platonists, Epicureans and Sceptics, sensed themselves to be composed of three parts. The first – the body – is one’s manifest presence in the world. It’s the part that rises and falls like the seasons. It’s unfailingly obedient to the determined course of natural life. It’s born, it lives, it dies.

The second part – the soul – is the dynamic that affords living creatures a life that is not solely determined by the rule-bound body. Human beings have a particularly rich soul-life. We experience it when we imagine, when we long, when we act, when we love. The soul means we not only depend upon but can work with nature. The soul loves to hear lines from Keats’ poem and it expands when it understands December is not only grey and cold but, more evocatively, drear nighted.

And that soulful sense can awaken a perception of the third part – the nous or mind. That’s known when we become aware that we are aware of the depth of experience. And then, with that self-awareness, can come a sense that is radically unexpected: we realise we are not simply enfolded in the drear nighted month but can step back inside, and know the cycles of life from a place that is beyond their passing. To put it another way, nous detects eternity. It can contemplate as well as be immersed in life. It’s what Aristotle called our immortal part; the Stoics our divine seed; the Platonists our kinship with the good, beautiful, and true.

Many feel they occasionally glimpse this dimension of existence. It’s called a peak experience, an oceanic feeling, a moment of egolessness. But philosophers taught that, with practice, it’s possible to know it permanently. Life can be lived with a steady consciousness of the ground of being that sustains life. The Roman poet, Lucretius, described how his philosopher-guru, Epicurus, had reached this state: “The keen force of his nous conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his mind and soul, whence, a conqueror, he brought back to us the account of what can arise and what cannot.”

What it involves is a kind of dying – dying to a life obsessed with the anxieties of the fragile body; dying to the dreams and hopes of the aspiring soul. With that death a shift of perspective arises and we can know ourselves as we truly are: “You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? You are bearing God about with you, and know it not!” as Epictetus the Stoic put it.

It’s why Socrates, on the last day of his bodily life, told his followers that he did not fear death. Death is presumably a passing fully into the life that he spent his bodily life seeking. “It would be absurd if a man who had been all his life fitting himself to live as nearly in a state of death as he could, should then be disturbed when death came to him,” he wittily explains.

But it’s still a death. The fears of the body are tenacious, often unconscious. The longings of the soul are powerful. To complicate things further, they are not bad in themselves and are often pretty good. What leads us astray is when we identify with them and lock onto them and mistake them for the fullness of life. With that, we lose awareness of the best we can know. Philosophy is learning to die to that attachment. It’s realising, even in December, that we are already astonishingly alive.


Wednesday, December 2 2015

100 years old and making a comeback – Freud’s theories of the unconscious

This is a slightly amended version of the piece published at The Guardian.

The unconscious has had a bumpy century since Sigmund Freud first described the extent of his discoveries in a seminal paper published 100 years ago this month. Sceptics sneer at its mention, assuming it's as discreditable as penis envy. Others, who sense the father of psychoanalysis was onto something, prefer to hedge their bets and not be tarnished by Freud's mixed reputation: they refer limply to the subliminal or subconscious. But it could be that the 21st century sees his insights become mainstream and flourish.

The reasons are, broadly, twofold: science and necessity. First, neuroscience has demonstrated conclusively that there's way more going on in the mind than the owners of those minds are generally aware. Mark Solms, a professor of neuropsychology and psychoanalyst who has pioneered much of the effort to test Freud's findings against the neuroscientific, often points out that the conscious mind is capable of attending to six or seven things at once, whilst the rest of the nervous system is performing thousands. In that light, it seems perverse to deny that much of psychic life lies over the horizon of our awareness, doubly so when you consider experiences such as dreaming and slips of the tongue, or ordeals from infancy that can't be remembered and yet demonstrably shape adult life.

So the real debate, today, is whether the mechanisms Freud ascribed to the unconscious - the so-called dynamic unconscious - were right. Take repression, the purposeful forgetting of memories that subsequently return as neurotic or psychotic symptoms. Freud argued this happens because an experience or thought is unpalatable or overwhelming, whereas cognitive psychology tends to resist such a notion. It prefers a static conception of unconscious contents. Memories can be lost, for sure, and linked to unexplained symptoms. But those symptoms cannot be read in meaningful or symbolic ways as Freud and his followers have contrived in the talking cure.

The science, though, is building to challenge this view. One line of research examines certain amnesic conditions in which patients fabricate memories and deny they can't recall what actually happened. Such confabulations have been shown to follow the rules that Freud identified in a dynamic unconscious. They carry meaning. Alternatively, there are suffers with paraphasia, a syndrome in which forgotten words are substituted by others. The substitutions similarly show patterns that mirror those Freud detected in dreams and slips. The evidence is that repression is a key characteristic of the unconscious.

The second reason that the unconscious is worth exploring has to do with medical necessity. Take the phenomenon of medically unexplained symptoms. These are widespread and everyday. In her recent book, It's All in Your Head, neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan reports that up to a third of people who go to the doctor have them. Their distress is real; the patient is not making it up. And yet no biological cause can be found. When you consider how much this costs - one study for somatising disorders estimates £3 billion for the NHS - it's clear that any reasonable candidate for explanation should be investigated with urgency.

The unconscious is one candidate and conversion disorders provide a case in point. Formerly known as hysteria, these too are remarkably prevalent. All neurology clinics, for example, see many individuals with lives severely limited by seizures but for whom an EEG reveals no epileptic activity in the brain: some estimates put it at about half of these patients. Other individuals will be impaired by breathlessness, blindness, pain, paralysis. As O'Sullivan admits, even though there's now technology to see inside the brain, the science is barely providing leads, let alone explanations.

But Freud's central idea on conversion disorders - namely that a trauma, or perceived trauma, lies at the origin - is now routinely shown to have clinical efficacy. At a recent debate on this subject at the Freud Museum in London, Richard Kanaan, a neuropsychiatrist, and Stephanie Howlett, a psychotherapist, made the case. When you examine patient histories carefully, which of course takes time, training and money, the dissociations and meaning of the symptoms often emerge. They advise treating patients across disciplines: Howlett works in conjunction with psychologists, physiotherapists and neurologists. As Kanaan put it, if Freud had referred to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) rather than hysteria, he would now be remembered as a pioneering hero.

No-one is saying that the unconscious is a magic bullet. These are often complex conditions with complex aetiologies. Freud himself stressed that working with the unconscious is painstaking precisely because it is unconscious. Further, psychoanalysis has itself radically revised Freud's original conclusions. But it now holds a century of wisdom on engaging this hidden and sometimes devastatingly powerful part of ourselves. Freud believed his work was only a beginning. Scientific research and sheer human need suggest we should energetically continue what he started.


Monday, November 30 2015

The psyche and God of an achievement society

A few more thoughts, prompted by Byung-Chul Han's thesis that we live in an age of hyperachievement, positivity and therefore depression and anxiety, as he outlines in The Burnout Society. This is from a review in the new Third Way.

A fascinating theme in the book is how such social and cultural factors shape our psyches and spiritual lives. Han argues that Freud's assumptions about the unconscious are now out of date. The father of psychoanalysis lived in what the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, was subsequently to label the "disciplinary society". In such a culture, individuals self-correct in the attempt to remain on the right side of moral assumptions - to be normal not abnormal, sane not insane, law-abiding not rule-breaking. We routinely monitor ourselves, as if we were living under constant surveillance. The psychoanalytic product is the superego, that inner voice or regulator which escalates the anxiety as rules and regulations are approached or breached. But now, as an achievement society, the imperative to inhibit yourself has given way to an imperative to produce yourself. "Shouldn't" has been replaced by "can".

If the punishing superego of the disciplinary society has become less powerful, Han is not clear on the nature of the psychic structures of the achievement society. A first thought might be that ours is an addictive psyche shaped by the pleasure principle - and simultaneously overwhelmed by the narcissistic wounds that inevitable follow from being unable always to do, to thrive, to achieve, to flourish.

Another thought is that Freud's erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, has something constructive to offer here. He argued that individuals today need not to perfect themselves but to complete themselves. His vision of the psyche is shaped by a longing to integrate from within it's own resources, and conversely, of avoiding the mistakes and disasters that come from trying to replicate an ideal. "Before we strive after perfection, we ought to be able to live the ordinary man without self-mutilation," Jung wrote in a letter. "If anybody should find himself after his humble completion still left with a sufficient amount of energy, then he may begin his career as a saint."

Such cultural changes also have implications for how we conceive of God. In a disciplinary society, God tends to be viewed as an omnipotent moral being who punishes and condemns, or is pleased and blesses, when his disciples fulfill their duties and tasks. If those imperatives are carried out at cost to the individual, God smiles all the more broadly.

But now, in an achievement society, the dominant image of God will have shifted. The God-image is perhaps now an omnipresent loving being who bestows rewards and riches, happiness and ecstasy. Again, this is too much for mere mortals, and so contemporary theists suffer from guilt not because of what they are not doing but because of what they are not experiencing: the life of the joyful redeemed. This insight might help explain the spread of charismatic movements that tend to emphasize what God has achieved for humanity, and whose meetings are organized around replicating and sustaining the highs - making burnout, once more, almost inevitable.

An alternative view of God, Han argues, is the God of the Sabbath - the holy day on which we are invited not to achieve, not to produce, but to stop. It's a day not to. It's an interval in which uselessness and idleness is celebrated. We can be tired on the Sabbath, a tiredness that Han concludes is a blessing because yielding to it precipitates peace and calm.

Moreover, in a surprising discussion of Pentecost, Han argues that it was the disciples' exhaustion after the events of Good Friday and Easter that prepared them for the open-heartedness required to receive the Spirit. Tired, their defenses and barriers collapsed. Exhausted, they had no energy left. Breathless, they could be inspired - breathed into. Pentecost as shattered. It offers a radical vision for a church which, today, often seems identified with the secular demand to achieve, to unthinkingly intone, "yes we can".


Friday, November 20 2015

The unconscious: 100 years old, and spiritual

This piece is in the new edition of the Church Times.

THE unconscious is 100 years old this month — counting the publication of Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “The Unconscious” as its birthday. Of course, the unconscious is as old as the psyche, and Freud, too, had been working on it for some years before 1915. His investigations into dreams and hypnosis, hysteria and neurosis demanded it, and he felt that a systematic model was needed.

It is striking how much of Freud’s 1915 description has a religious feel to it. For example, he argues that the processes that take place in the human unconscious have a timeless quality. “They are not ordered temporarily, are not altered by the passage of time.”

They are eternal, in the strict sense — outside time. Freud had stumbled across an experience of life that matched the psalmist’s description of God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday” (Psalm 90.4).

Human beings do not live for millennia, but they do live for decades, and psychoanalysis was showing that, in the human mind, the experiences of decades ago have as much vitality as those of yesterday. We have an eternal dimension, too.

It is a finding subsequently substantiated in John Bowlby’s attachment theory: how we experience love and holding in our earliest years, which we cannot consciously remember, influences how we experience love and being held as adults.

This is one reason why, in spite of Freud’s antipathy to religion, psychoanalysis has always had a spiritual feel. Psychodynamic therapy puts the individual in touch with a side of himself or herself which is utterly mysterious to a materialist frame of reference. Yet there is no doubt that it is real.

ANOTHER remarkable observation that Freud makes is that one unconscious can communicate with another, without either individual necessarily realising it. Freud did not know what to make of this aspect in 1915. It subsequently became one of the keystones of psychotherapy, in “transference”: the unspoken felt exchanges that take place between client and therapist, which the therapist has learnt to notice and interpret.

For the spiritually minded, Freud’s observation offers one way of understanding how the immaterial and material worlds interact. It is as if we live in fields of psychic energy which affect us as much as the fields of electromagnetic energy which surround us, also known as darkness and light. We exist in webs of feeling and meaning, for good or ill. We become who we are in response to those who are physically and psychically close. Roughly speaking, communications from benign sources develop the soul; malignancy makes the soul contract.

IT IS clear from research in transgenerational trauma that our ancestors have an impact on us, too. The dead do not simply die. The unconscious can be a way of conceptualising how God and even the angels might shape us as well.

As the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, preached at Michaelmas this year: “Thoughts and notions may come from outside us: our lowest, our destructive ideas, from the source of evil; our highest, our saving notions, from the message of the angels, from our loving Father God.”

That is not language that Freud would use; but he did go on to posit death and life drives, welling up from the unconscious.

Another remark in his 1915 essay carries echoes of how mystics have conceptualised the divine. Opposites and paradoxes are present without contradiction in the unconscious, Freud observed. It is why in dreams we can fly, and why there is a part of us more amenable to poetry than reason.

Theology, too, is full of opposites and paradoxes. God is three in one. The divine can be conceived of simultaneously as creator, shepherd, fire, wisdom. “It might be fruitful to offer the model of the unconscious as one which does better justice to the notion of God within his creation, to the intimate closeness of the infinite which faith also values,” proposes Rodney Bomford, the author of The Symmetry of God (Free Association Books, 1999).

Yes, there are significant differences between God and the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious often feels a dark, oppressive place — although his erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, realised that the unconscious has an expansive and liberating energy, too. God is not the unconscious. Yet studying the unconscious helps the imagination to open to the divine mystery.

FINALLY, the unconscious can assist in understanding pastoral aspects of spirituality. In a footnote to his essay, Freud writes: “The unconscious act exerts on somatic processes an influence of intense plastic power which the conscious act can never do.” To use other terms, the unconscious may lie behind psychosomatic illnesses.

Whatever the causes, which are hotly contested, somatising disorders are widespread: one recent study estimated that the NHS spends £3 billion each year on unexplained symptoms. The unconscious will not account for it all, but there is an urgent need to acknowledge its reach.

Churches and other spiritual buildings are important here. They are known as “brick mothers” in psychotherapeutic circles — structures that transmit feelings of safety and healing. They can be thought of as places that precipitate, and even store, the curative powers of the unconscious, much as buried trauma can conversely cause such psychic and somatic distress.

It helps to explain how churches can assist in supporting improvements in mental health, such as the one promoted by the Recovery Friendly Church course, an initiative developed in a collaboration between St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham, and the Recovery College of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.

The founder of psychoanalysis is not often thought of as a friend of religion. But read him more closely: his curiosity concerning the dynamics of the human soul produces reasons for confidence in, as well as the development of, the insights of generations of people of faith.


Tuesday, November 17 2015

Paris, terrorism, and psychoanalysis

I've been wondering whether psychodynamic insights have anything to offer in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris. And I've found the writings of John Lord Alderdice, a former speaker in the Northern Irish assembly, who is also a psychoanalyst. I think he has crucial and fascinating things to say about understanding terrorism that draw on his two areas of hard-won expertise (see, Alderdice, J.L. (2005). Understanding Terrorism: The Inner World and the Wider World. Brit. J. Psychother, 21:577-587).

Key insights from psychoanalysis need to be brought to bear on our responses to terrorism, he argues. First and foremost: it is not behaviour or thoughts that give potency to the experiences of life, but emotions and meanings. Further, these emotions and meanings are typically derived from the past, not least when that past is marked by hurt and abuse.

Relatedly, the emotional impact of the past is felt as powerfully today in the present, especially when it has not been acknowledged or understood. Further, there are few past experiences that have more purchase on the present than those of humiliation. The desire for vengeance and the righting of wrongs can shape an entire life. They also have a particular power to generate violence because of the need to see an aggressor experience the humiliation that the aggressor is perceived to have inflicted.

A further insight is the victim/perpetrator dynamic. Victimhood often - not always - develops a sadomasochistic quality. The victim grows up in an environment in which the currency of communication is the exchange of pain. It's possible that no other currency of communication can be imagined. Hence, the dynamic can be perpetuated down the generations.

How might these be applied to terrorism? Here are seven points.

First, responses that appeal to rationality, such as "why can't these people see reason?", simply and fatally misunderstand what's going on. As Alderdice puts it: "The outsider from a stable society regards the damage of communal violence as self-evidently not in the interests of either individuals or the society, and often they feel sure that people can be made to ‘see sense’. The insider understands that this view fails to appreciate the weakness of such rational argument in the face of profound violence. "The terrorist has a profound need to make the perceived aggressor feel the humiliation that they felt.

A different rationally-based response that is equally useless is the socio-economic one, in particular, the idea that terrorism has to do with poverty. As a matter of fact, terrorism tends to arise in states that are on their way out of poverty. Bin Laden was a wealthy man. It is at the point of improvement, Alderdice notes, that things become vulnerable to violent breakdown.

So, mechanisms other than socio-economic rationality are at play. What they might be can be illuminated by noticing that the tragic victims of terrorism are not the real targets. Rather, the victims are a way of getting at an authority, usually a government. You see this most clearly in suicide bombing where the victim is, in part, the terrorist's own body. But suicide bombing gets at the authority via the fear it generates. In other words, terrorism needs to be understood as motivated by meaning rather than by personal betterment.

Second, there is the need to understand the immense impact of the past, with all it's emotion and meaning. Such emotions and meanings cannot simply be set aside. Alderdice writes: "The set of thoughts and feelings that has impressed me as most significant in generating violence has to do with experiences of disrespect and humiliation." The desire to be treated with respect is "insatiable".

Moreover, those experiences of disrespect and humiliation may be in the apparently distant past. Psychoanalysis shows that, contrary to the popular view, time is often no healer. The point here is that terrorism can feed on identifications with past or historic victims, and/or inner conflicts that the individual carries from the past. These feed a justification of righteous violence. "The sense that the very existence of a community and all that it holds dear has been threatened provokes deep fears and creates a capacity for responses at least as violent as those which it has experienced." Or as Alderdice puts it in relation to Northern Irish terrorism in particular: "Joining a terrorist organization was consciously seen both as a way of protecting their community and satisfying the wish for revenge for the death or injury of their loved ones"

Third, terrorists may be following rules that pertain more to the unconscious than conscious world - the world of dreams, you might say. It's driven by basic feelings of hatred and rage, or pleasure and elation; by uncomplicated associations that lack nuance and deploy sweeping symbolisms; by wish fulfillments; by a false sense of freedom from the strictures of waking reality, space and time. Alderdice suggests that describing terrorists as fundamentalists can be misguiding here. He prefers the word "primitive" meant in the psychoanalytic sense, like that of a child who refuses to be comforted and screams out of sheer rage.

More complicated still, the child may grow to enjoy its rage because it delivers a secondary gain: being able to control the parent. So too, terrorism delivers secondary gains in terms of feelings of omnipotence: being able to command the world stage. Further again, like parents who must contain the screams of their child and resist being drawn into its primitive world, governments and societies faced with terrorism must resist cultivating primitive feelings and actions in response.

Fourth, Alderdice argues that whilst there may be the need at times to contain the terrorism with violence, violence that is presented as punishment or vengeance will not work. To put it another way, shoot-to-kill will not in itself deter. This is because of the need in terrorism to avenge perceived humiliations. So such actions by a strong government feeds the rage of the self-perceived weak, and further, makes the actions of the weak seem all the more honourable in the minds of those who share the humiliation.

Fifth, there are dire periods of communal violence that can be likened to the most difficult stages of psychotic illness, when the only response is one of containment and trying to minimize damage. "Communities (shaped by terrorism) are in thrall to enormously powerful feelings that can overwhelm their capacity to think clearly and act constructively."

Six, a stage will arrive when it's possible to think more clearly and act constructively, and then everything must be on the table; be capable of being talked about. There must be no no-go areas. This radical honesty and openness lay behind the successes of the truth and reconciliation activities in South Africa. Alderdice argues that it is lacking in the context of the Middle East.

Seven - and in a way to return to the first - appealing to long term solutions is usually of limited help, because emotion is the real issue. "People who propose peace plans in such circumstances seem to be living with the unstated assumption that if the ‘right plan’ could be invented everyone would suddenly grasp it with relief and implement it. Of course this is an illusion. It is not the content of a solution that is critical but the process of achieving it."

Like psychotherapy, the diagnosis of the problem is of limited use: it's the working through which is transformational. To put it another way, we must learn to tolerate the long game and be prepared to invest accordingly.


Tuesday, November 3 2015

100 years of the unconscious

This month marks the centenary of Sigmund Freud's seminal 1915 paper on the unconscious. In this episode of Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake and myself discuss Freud's understanding of this dynamic, hidden part of the human psyche. We look at the different ideas of Carl Jung, and also ask how the unconscious links to perceptions of the soul and morphic fields.

The discussion is available as a podcast or on iTunes.

Image: Iceberg image - Freud's unconscious often being likened to the submerged mass of ice.


Sunday, October 25 2015

Eliminate the positive. It's making us ill.

A Sunday sermon from The Idler Academy, on the redeeming power of negativity.

We live in a dictatorship of positivity. "Yes we can," is the dogma of the age not just the exhausting creed of politicians. You and I must be happy and succeed in all our projects. Business success means maximal production. Kids are washed in affirmation and make entrepreneurs of themselves. We enjoy only amazing holidays, watch simply brilliant films, and generally talk in an excited lexicon flooded by superlatives. And it's making us ill.

This is the conclusion of the Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han. His essay, The Burnout Society, has recently been published, giving us his work in English for the first time. He describes how a lack of negativity in life leads to hyperactivity followed by burnout. Because no-one can say no - to the boss, to the mobile, to the inner child, to the electorate - we become trapped in cycles of over-productivity, over-communication, and over-achieving. And, of course, no-one can live at this pitch. The upshot is an epidemic of depression and anxiety. "The complaint of the depressive individual, Nothing is possible, is only possible in a society that believes, Nothing is impossible," Han writes.

Worse, our very psyches are overwritten with this code. It's not actually our bosses or politicians who are exploiting us. We are self-exploiting, running the incessant command to achieve. Distractions and deadlines, amusements and multitasking have become a way of life. Earlier this year, Microsoft discovered that the average attention span has dropped to less than that of a goldfish. Microsoft needs to know because if it doesn't deliver the speeding interface consumers crave, its opponents will.

The paradox of positivity is that it wrecks. "It is an illusion to believe that the more active one becomes, the freer one is." Hyper-attention empties. When everything must be exceptional, the good feels naked. We're left nervous, like a creature hunted on the savannah with nowhere to rest - only the threat is not out there, it's internalized. Hence, panic spontaneously erupts when your phone crashes. Anger kicks out when the driver in front of you is fractionally slow at the lights. The midlife crisis is no longer midlife but is first experienced in your teens, then in your twenties, thirties, forties. "Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity," Han continues. And creation fatigue. Think of the blockbuster films released this Christmas. Star Wars was new 40 years ago; James Bond 60 years ago.

So what does Han counsel? In a word, contemplation or "profound idleness". It's the rediscovery of negativity, the active capacity to turn from this and that, and focus only on the other. For many of us hyper-achievers, this possibility will only emerge after a breakdown. The crash is a gift: no longer able to produce, exhausted by our own ability, we will be forced to say no and, if we are lucky, will realise that it's liberating.

We may go further and learn to see, be mindful. Deep attention may follow after that. And the freshness of life might return. As Nietzsche observed, thinking and culture require "getting your eyes used to calm, to patience, to letting things come to you." It requires unlearning the immediate reactivity to the next stimulus and instead taking control of the "inhibiting, excluding instincts." Gradually, ruminative crowding lessens. Irritable abreactions can be contained. You pause.

Sabbath originally meant "stopping". It's a day not to. It's an interval in which uselessness is celebrated. So this week, dare to exclude yourself, to be negative, to be glad of the fatigue that makes you want to curl up. This supposed social disaster is actually a moment of hope. Look, and you'll see it contains the inspiration to not-to-do. Nothing could be your salvation.


Saturday, October 24 2015

The spiritual psychology of choral evensong

To celebrate the launch of, which tells you where to find the nearest celebration of this glorious, and free, experience of Anglican transcendence, Rupert Sheldrake and myself have had a conversation about liminal rites and the power of chant as part of our science set free podcast.

They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.


Wednesday, October 14 2015

Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: Complementary Practices

Mindfulness is rarely out of the news right now, and one theme that is doing the rounds is whether it can be dangerous. Projects such as The Dark Night are investigating the adverse effects of practice. Alternatively, the research upon which the efficacy of mindfulness rests is being questioned: does the research conceal as much as what it illuminates about the impact of meditation?

As a committed practitioner myself, I suspect there's something important to understand in this examination. And I think insights from psychotherapy greatly assist. To summarize what I think's going on: there's a growing realization that mindfulness is a powerful tool but what is harder is to accept that this very power can mean things go wrong. Psychotherapy helps because it offers a complementary set of tools for finding a way through what meditation brings up.

Consider one common experience when individuals start meditating, one with which they can then struggle for a long time. It's the basic business of sustaining a practice. Often, I suspect, there's an initial buzz when beginning that, at first, keeps an individual returning to the cushion. There's a "quick win" of peacefulness that comes with even a few minutes of silence in the midst of a life that is, otherwise, mostly distracted. That sense of calmness discovered is likely to last throughout an introductory course: research shows that attrition rates at this stage are low. But after the 8 weeks, the going gets tough. So what's going on?

Psychodynamic thinking suggests that the practice might be putting an individual in touch with what's known as their "secure base". And it may be beginning to highlight the possibility that this is not quite so resilient as an individual had taken it to be. Developmental psychology assists here.

Research such as that based upon John Bowlby's attachment theory shows that we form a sense of security within ourselves that arises from the experience we had in our earliest months and years. Feeling grounded is feeling that our bodily sense of things can basically be trusted. Feeling restless, detached, agitated when trying to sit still is perhaps an echo of our early experience. It has left us with a barely conscious feeling that, in our vulnerability then, we did not feel so well held. It's the kind of fundamental, somatic insight into our experience of life that mindfulness unveils. It's a dimension that, I suspect, most people will encounter when they try to practice.

A mindfulness teacher will, of course, encourage you to sit with it, perhaps stressing that shorter periods of practice time are better than attempting unsustainable marathons. But psychotherapy can offer complementary help. In a way, to be in therapy is to meet with someone who can hold things for you whilst you, first, become more aware of the deep insecurities and, second, learn to relate to them differently. Sitting, in time, becomes more possible too. It's one area in which mindfulness and psychotherapy can work together.

A second area concerns another key issue in mindfulness practice, that of being kind to yourself. The cultivation of compassion is so crucial because, again, mindfulness is so powerful. It can highlight not only your restlessness but also your inner judge - the voice that relentlessly criticizes and picks holes in others. A mindfulness teacher will stress that compassion directed at yourself and others is crucial if this dynamic is to be negotiated. They are right.

But psychotherapy offers possibly invaluable assistance here too. In psychodynamic terms what is being encountered is the human tendency to project difficult feelings into oneself and onto others. It's a pervasive tendency that goes on all day everyday, such as when we spontaneously and instantly make judgments about others. The stillness of mindfulness brings up the fact that these projections are so widespread in one's life. That can be deeply disturbing to observe.

Psychodynamic therapy helps because it is an approach that works directly with projections, in the form of transference. Therapists are trained at not getting sucked into them, but rather staying with, thinking about, and working through them. It's compassion by another name. Therapy can, therefore, greatly facilitate nurturing your own compassion too.

A third critical issue in mindfulness practice has to do with integration. One of the risks with discovering the potential peace offered by meditation is that you attempt to cultivate that calmness as an escape from everyday life. This is very different from cultivating it as a place to which you can bring the hassles of everyday life. Once more, it's a tricky business to get right, particularly because many of the conceptual ideas in the mindfulness lexicon - such as emptiness, stillness, allowing - can seem straightforward enough when, in actuality, they are tremendously subtle.

Psychotherapy refers to this third tendency as splitting, the inadvertent bid to keep a good experience of peace away from nastier feelings of discontent. It's something everyone does to some degree: sometimes it's necessary. The danger in mindfulness is that a practice beds down as "the moment in the day when I can relax", or as a kind of peace-battery that's charged up in the morning in the hope that its effect will last the day.

Think of it like this. There's a difference between safety and safeness. Safety is when you feel protected from the world, under the duvet, as it were. Safeness is when you feel resourced to be able to face the world - to be open to it without being overwhelmed by it. Psychotherapy can help to discern the difference, with the result that mindfulness becomes a support that enables you to enter the darkness, rather than using it to retreat into an ultimately false source of imagined perpetual light.

So mindfulness is powerful. That's why it's been a core practice in spiritual and therapeutic paths for millennia. But I suspect that many, perhaps most, modern day practitioners need modern day help too. My suggestion is that psychodynamic psychotherapy can assist.

Image: Phra Ajan Jerapunyo


Sunday, September 27 2015

Love will find a way

This essay, adapted from my book Love: All That Matters, is in the current issue of TPM.

Developmental psychology is a field of study hardly known until the twentieth century. Before figures like Sigmund Freud, philosophers seemed not much to have noticed that the inner life of the child has a determining impact upon the love life of the adult. Exceptions include thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But it wasn't until Freud developed notions such as infantile sexuality, and followers of his including Jean Piaget and Melanie Klein developed practices of infant observation, that it became clear just how profoundly the first few years shape our subsequent experiences of and attempts to love. My sense is that the philosophy of love has yet fully to embrace these new discoveries perhaps because, during the same period, philosophy came to inhabit a silo of knowledge isolated from psychology, which itself became pre-occupied with behavioural investigations, as opposed to the psychodynamic. That time appears now to be passing.

The developmental insights can usefully be summarised by arguing that our capacity for love emerges in, broadly, three stages. At each stage a different relational dynamic becomes possible, one deeper and more expansive than what was previously known. However, the transition between each mode is painful because it requires letting go of the security that comes with the former familiar love. A life will tend to go well - an individual will be more likely to flourish - if they can wisely utilize and spontaneously enjoy each kind of love. Conversely, things will tend to become stuck and troubled, perhaps seriously damaged, when a to-and-fro movement between the loves is blocked.

The three loves begin with self-love or, to give it its seemingly darker, more technical name, narcissism. In life, this is our first love, as the evidence is that it is the kind of love with which we are born. On the whole, it serves us well because it ensures we survive. It selfishly demands the nourishment and security, both physical and psychological, that the newborn child needs. However, there is a downside. Narcissism has little or no felt appreciation that other human beings exist as separate entities in the world. So, unless it is transcended, this love leaves us lonely and isolated, worried by the existence of others and untrusting. We must love ourselves but in such a way that we can get over ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin. Then narcissism serves us well because it means we can embrace a world apart from ourselves.

That leads to the second kind of love, the love that discovers there is another person in the world and this person is both loveable and returns love. Typically, it is thought that it begins to dawn on the very young child that it has a mother, or a primary carer, who is devoted to it. The infant is encouraged in play to explore the little intimacies that this other person longs to share and it develops the capacity for a healthy attachment to this other. The bodily warmth of their twosome nurtures in it the wonderful realization that it is not alone. The child grows in love, develops a stronger sense of itself through this relationship and, all being well, lays down capacities that will serve it well when, as a young adult, it falls in love and discovers once more that there is another person who might love them and whom they might love.

The second love supports a happy state of affairs, one that can be regarded as the pinnacle of love, particularly in its grown-up form: romantic love. But, in fact, it is a crucial part of the developmental story that this is not the end of love. Left in that phase, romantic love is as limited and limiting as self-love. The two lovers are stranded, struggling to find fulfilment in each other, when, in truth, fulfilment for human beings requires far more than love focused on just one other person.

So the individual must make another transition, which again is difficult. However, if once more it navigates the shift well enough, a third even more tremendous experience of love comes into conscious view. It is the love that can welcome a third dimension into its embrace. It is the most expansive and open, and with it the individual can throw him- or herself wholeheartedly into life.

The first experience of this third love is likely to occur when the now not quite so young child realizes mother has other interests and loves, not least the individual she relates to as her beloved. That comes as a shock to the child, although it may then sense that Dad loves him or her as well as Mum, and that their threesome enables all kinds of experiences that were inconceivable before. One of the most astonishing is when the child notices it can observe two others loving, as he or she watches on, which leads to the sense that he or she too is being watched. Internalized, this is the basis for self-awareness and self-consciousness, and the sense that the centre of life is not focused on me, or between me and another, but is dispersed throughout fields or networks of shared connection.

Life is much more promising, and complex, and at times frightening, than the infant could have possibly imagined. With this third love, the child – and then adult – develops the confidence and trust required to enter into mature love and so to become a friend; to pursue wider interests and passions; all in all, to reach out into life in all its fulness.


In fact, and although he showed little interest in the inner lives of infants, Plato described a developmental process that can be related to the modern psychology: in works like the Symposium and the Phaedrus, he provides a vivid description of the way that love works. It has the remarkable quality of revealing an experience of life that far transcends the first taste of love that awoke us to its allure. By committing to live a life in pursuit of love, Plato says, life will become far more for us than we might imagine. Love carries within itself a tremendous transformative potential. The individual who loves well enough – be it as a beloved, a friend, a parent – is changed as they love. Love itself seems to overcome inherent limitations, often to a surprising degree. When that change goes well, people find their capacity for loving expanding, too. They sense more and more of life. Plato argued that love moves us because of the magnetic force known as beauty: the beauty we discern in our beloved is love’s ‘promise of happiness’ should we manage to make a life together. It works in two ways.

First, our appraisal of the beauty draws us to them or it, although what Plato also noticed is that at this stage we do not know precisely what we will find should we get there. This is partly because beauty awakens us from afar: its task is to draw us towards who or what is not yet known. But there is a more radical aspect to beauty’s promise, too, because love itself creates a new future out of the relationship as it unfolds. It is not just that the beloved is at first a stranger to us. Something new happens when lovers get together. To put it another way, we bet on love when we respond to beauty, a bet that is ‘a stab at the future’ as the philosopher Alexander Nehamas puts it. This insight, Nehamas argues, is Plato’s most startling: love is creative, working reflexively in the fit and friction of the relationship that is uniquely the lovers’ own. ‘What is mine is thine, and thine is mine’, as the old phrase has it, not only because they will now share what separately they had before but because something comes into being that is forged within and belongs to their relationship.

Plato stressed that love is a tricky path to follow, one of great toil, likely setbacks, and possible failure. Human beings find themselves in something of a bind when it comes to love because the love that spontaneously arises within the individual is inevitably limited and flawed for the reason that human beings are limited and flawed creatures. We are always, in a way, failures in love.

It is a truth that chimes with developmental psychology. There are the anxious experiences that must be borne for the infant to transcend their narcissism and grant that mother has interests other than itself. Though it is a struggle not without hope, Plato would add. To switch back to his description: if courageous and capable, the individual is likely to undergo a transformation in which the first yearnings for another human body subtly shift and begin to speak to them of a deeper desire.

A common adult manifestation of this movement is the perhaps surprising wish to have children with a person to whom you are attracted. Children, Plato explains, are a product of love’s spiritual desire for more from life: sexual relationships in human beings stirs up a longing that teenage lovers would never have dreamed of – a desire to overcome their egoism, felt as a longing to have and hold a new life sprung from their love.

It's one form of adult love celebrated by Plato. Children can prove to be a great satisfaction. But they have a tendency to have a life of their own and routinely disrupt the hopes and longings of parents. So, individuals strive for other ways of embracing more from life, Plato continues, of transcending the boundaries of their own limited existence. There are the sciences and arts, friends and work, wealth and fame. Though, again, you do not have to look too hard to feel that they are likely to offer only fragile satisfaction as well.

There is an element in some of these activities that can mitigate the risk to a degree – that is, when they contribute to the common good. Plato suspected that this is why people seek to make contributions to the societies in which they live. That can take many forms. Individuals become artists not only for reasons of self-expression but to make public works. Engaging in research and science not only scratches a personal itch that wants to know but contributes to the accumulation of knowledge that links the individual to wider concerns. Others may devote their loves to upholding justice, caring for others, or laying down their life for their country.

Another aspect of love that builds in a degree of resilience is creativity. Plato points out that the love of friends, wealth or discovery may be possessive – as in, this is ‘my friend’, ‘my money’, ‘my insight’. But creativity may also take on a different tone, not possessive but generative. Possessive energies are transformed from being self-serving to being collaborative.

You can tell because when individuals collaborate on some project that they love, or when their collaboration is a commitment to each other born of love, the results are exponential. What they give birth to is more than either alone could have conceived. The beautiful ideas of one combine with those of another and a third thing is born. The lovers will themselves be changed by this process, as parents are when they have children. They will love something new that they could not have anticipated before their work of love began and it will take them out of themselves.


We are now a long way from the youthful desire for another body, or even the search for friends. Such is the transformative potential of love. But is there a fourth step to add to developmental psychology's three? Does love afford another dimension of existence that, when we follow it's path is opened up to us?

Certainly, many human beings have believed so, calling that dimension ‘God’, or ‘the transcendent’, or ‘infinite compassion’. The writer of the late fourteenth century spiritual guide The Cloud of Unknowing talked of a ‘dart of longing love’ that can penetrate these clouds of our unknowing. The Buddhist tradition has developed sophisticated practices that build lives of compassion which, in turn, promises a kind of awakening called enlightenment.

Plato believed so too. He made an observation something like this. What links the later creative activities of mature love with the first romantic urge is that they promise a kind of reversal. It is not we who must cling to love out of an act of desperation, but, rather, to mature in love is to discover that love is already flowing through us, has in a sense already made us. To borrow from developmental psychology: the young infant did not know its parent was there, though she or he was. Later, it did not know that the parent was supported by the love of others, though that is revealed when the child awakens to the reality of a third. The creative life is like that, too. It is born of the passion of others, always already ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.

I like the analogy of the philologist, Owen Barfield: to be human is to be like an Aeolian harp. These musical instruments consist of a wooden box and sounding board, over which strings are stretched across a bridge. They look a little like a violin without the neck. Also, they are not played by a bow, as the violin is, but rather by the wind. Aeolian harps are placed in openings across which the wind may blow, perhaps at a window: Aeolus is the god of the wind. As the air current sweeps across the strings, so the music from the harp is heard shifting and evolving, rising and falling. The analogy is that we are the harp, and the wind is the love required to make the music. We have a creative part to play in the harmonies that emerge, though without the movement of the pre-existing love there could only be silence.

Still, the fragility persists. Love is always a scary force. In taking us out of ourselves, placing our lives in the love of others, it places our wellbeing in their hands, too. When things go well, this fires our creativity, our capacity to give, our passion for life. When we are let down or betrayed, love generates rage, envy, desolation, the desire for destruction. You are far more likely to murdered by someone you love than by a stranger. It is friends who can hurt you the most, not strangers.

For Plato, though, and other philosophers and theologians influenced by him, there is a way out of this terrible ambivalence. Mature love teaches us not to strive for and cling to what we think we desire, or only to turn to the love of others. It alerts us to a love that is closer to us than we are to ourselves, to deploy the formula of Augustine, the Christian theologian and philosopher. This can, at the last, always be relied upon. Augustine called that love God, the place in which the restless heart can find rest. The sufferings of life do not cease: love still calls us to love. Only now there is the sense that the hurt and struggle can be redeemed. Love's greatest revelation is that the process of self-renunciation it leads us upon - and which developmental psychology has described so well in relation to early life - opens up a fourth dimension: a sense of divine love that underpins all the earlier growth and struggle.

The revelation is summed up in the formula from the Christian tradition: God is love. The most basic truth in life is not that we yearn for more when clumsily we love, though we do, but that the constant, unclouded love of God yearns for us. Plato never puts it quite like that, though is clear that he felt love was the energy that can propel us towards intimations of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Parallel intuitions can be found in other wisdom traditions too.

Such insights are the opposite of the implicit assumptions we lived by when we were born into the world and struggled to grab and possess life, in the desperate need to survive. The truth we might eventually come to is that love’s desire is most deeply satisfied by letting go, by allowing, by receiving. It is not about trying to control life. That is a necessary strategy for a time, and at certain times, in order that we might make something of ourselves as human beings. We all do it. And yet, a different kind of presence can come through too. It was the most lovely of all. ‘What do I love when I love my God?’ Augustine asks at the end of his Confessions . Is it the glories of creation, the intensity of existence, the wonder of the heavens, the silence of eternity? ‘I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things,’ he continues, ‘and their beauty was all the answer they gave.’ This is a love that does not seek to possess, or even to create, but to contemplate. It is the only final response to the natural desire for more. It is an extension of the observation that love thrives best when we do not gaze into each other’s eyes but turn together towards life. The promise is a kind of love that engages not just life, but the ground of being itself.


It seems to me that what has been learned of love from developmental psychology - the dynamic and momentum it gives to the unfolding of love in life - can naturally be continued to point in this divine direction. Ultimately, love is not from us. It made and makes us. Human love is the experience that inevitably oscillates between poles of possessing and releasing, struggle and rest, surface and depth, body and soul, pain and pleasure, terrestrial and celestial. And yet, without the higher poles, it may be mistaken for being defined by the possessing, struggle, surface, body and pain.

The divine element is, of course, the tricky element in a secular age. The desire to invest in family and friends, in work and creativity, is straightforward to accept – if often hard to pull off in life. That love might lead us on an erotic quest towards God may feel like a step too far. Perhaps family and friends, work and the like are enough. Maybe there is nothing more in life than life and so it is futile to seek the divine. Spiritual love is deluded love.

However, I suspect that this is a possibility that cannot be decided upon by reason or psychology, by myth or evidence alone. Ultimately, it can only be answered by the ever-expansive journey into life called love. That path is itself epistemologically revealing. It is integral to love's transformative potential. To use Martha Nussbaum's phrase, though she did not mean it in this way, there is such a thing as 'love's knowledge'. If there is a way back to God, only love will finally reveal it to us.


Saturday, September 12 2015

Beyond physicalism

We've published the latest discussion between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

There is a growing new mood in science. The grip that scientific materialism has had on the scientific imagination is beginning to loosen. This is the philosophy that all things in the natural world can be reduced to the material level. But it seems as if the many everyday experiences that individuals have, in particular being conscious, which can't be accounted for by physicalism are forcing the possibility of considering alternatives. In this dialogue, Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon consider what might be happening, how such a shift would make a difference in areas from health to parapsychology, and what might happen next.


Friday, August 28 2015

Heavens Above! Can we still follow Dante into paradise?

This article is published in the new issue of Third Way Magazine

In the 750th anniversary year of Dante's birth, does the medieval world-view of The Divine Comedy still have anything to teach us? Mark Vernon's planetary tour of the Italian poet's universe gives new signposts for modern readers.

Midway upon the journey of his life, Dante Alighieri, the poet of The Divine Comedy, watched his luck collapse. A politician in Florence with the ear of the Pope, his fortunes suddenly reversed and he was cast into exile and penury. His mind fell on his first love, the beautiful Beatrice. The yearning and loss inspired his great poem, a visionary journey powered by love that carries him through the three realms of the dead towards a beatific vision of God.

Many modern readers of his masterpiece feel quite at home in the Inferno and Purgatory. The fates and tortures, sorrows and hopes that fill these realms still feel related to our struggles today. That familiarity departs with the Paradise. The vast differences between the medieval and modern experience of life then become an apparently insuperable barrier.

C.S. Lewis described the gap in his study of the medieval imagination, The Discarded Image. He recognized that it represented a major problem for Christianity because so much Christian imagery and theology is grounded in the abandoned worldview. When Dante looked up to the stars, he perceived himself to be on the lower rungs of a ladder of being that rises to God. When modern eyes gaze into the heavens, it is as if we look out from an island of awareness into vast voids of emptiness. Science tells us it is populated by dead matter not living souls; blind mechanisms not celestial virtues.

Or is that right? Do we actually have more imaginative and metaphysical options than we might first presume? Can we look up with modern eyes and still detect Dante's brilliant vision?


Dante the pilgrim enters paradise and the first sphere of the Moon. According to the poem, he asks why the lunar surface has lighter and darker parts. Beatrice, who accompanies him, tells him that he must let go of the physical explanations he proposes. His task now is different: it is to learn to perceive by a spiritual light. So for we moderns, might entering the lunar domain be thought of metaphorically as coming to an awareness of how richly we project human perceptions onto the stars, so as to begin to let them go?

Take the interest in discovering extraterrestrial life. This enterprise has been energetically engaged for well over half a century without a single positive discovery. The last report I saw said that over 100,000 galaxies have now been scanned for the basic signatures of civilizations like ours without the faintest signal. So why does this long search lose none of its fascination and appeal?

Projection is one answer. I wonder whether the search for ET has much to do with the human need to feel we are not alone. You might say that the quest is indulged with sublunary assumptions, as if the only option for intelligent life is carbon-based consciousness like our own. But that preoccupation excludes spiritual possibilities. What might they be? Dante asks that too, as he journeys into the next sphere, Venus.


Here, he begins to be able to discern, and bear, intensely beautiful images of spiritual reality. For a modern mind, reflecting on the role that beauty plays in scientific discovery might help us to journey this next step with him. Put it like this: mathematicians seek elegant solutions; physicists symmetries; biologists patterns. Scientists do so because such beautiful formulations are scientifically productive. But are they metaphysically revealing too?

In fact, the mathematician and former President of the Royal Society, Michael Atiyah, has noticed that modern scientists are perhaps unwittingly rejecting beauty as a handmaid of discovery by their adoption of algebra as a mathematical tool, in conjunction with computers. The upshot is that geometry, with its intuitive methods based upon principles of beauty - pattern, symmetry, balance - is falling into disuse. In a lecture, "Mathematics in the Twentieth Century", delivered in 2000, he argued that this move is something of a Faustian pact. "The devil says: 'I will give you this powerful machine, and it will answer any question you like. All you need to do is give me your soul.'" But without soul - without beauty - science is limited to what the machine can manipulate. It leaves scientists blind to what calculations cannot conceive.

You could say that Atiyah senses that science needs Venus and the stimulus of beauty, and that her inspiration is at risk of being eclipsed.


Dante's next step in paradise is into the sphere of the Sun. He is now fully awake to the limitations of human understanding; he has embraced the wonder of being confronted by irresolvable mystery. For the modern mind, a similar point of realization can be reached: the knowledge gained through the powerful methods of modern science comes to be recognized as indicative of a richness that lies beyond description, and which is even more extraordinary.

Dante meets Thomas Aquinas in the Sun. There is a well known story about Aquinas, which Dante presumably knew. On the morning of St Nicolas's Day, 1273, Aquinas had a vision. He concluded that all he had written was as much straw - meaning not meaningless but basic compared with the "wisdom so profound none of His creatures can ever hope to see into Its depths," as Dante has Aquinas say in Paradise. The human efforts of the Angelic Doctor could now stop. He would rest in the fecundity of spiritual silence, which paradoxically he could appreciate all the more because of his hard-won knowledge. He had adopted a solar mind.

Another past President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, has written of a parallel experience. He confesses an agnosticism of the type that is profoundly aware of the limitations of the human mind. He argues that scientific endeavours have barely understood the workings of the hydrogen atom, one of the simplest structures in the cosmos. It seems presumptuous to propose that we will one day arrive at a theory of everything, and so know the mind of God, to recall the phrase of Stephen Hawking. You might say that Rees is a scientist who enjoys the radiance of the Sun - the wonderment that dazzles at the fine edges of rational and empirical discovery. We can join him and Aquinas too.


Love presses on, and Dante next moves towards Mars. Here, he meets one of his ancestors and, in that meeting, his relationship to the great flow of life. It's the next gift offered by paradise.

I sense we might be welcomed here by Paul Davies, a cosmologist who countenances a possibility that is generally taboo in modern science, namely that the cosmos might have a telos, a directionality, an end. Davies is the author of several bestselling science books, including The Goldilocks Enigma, in which he examines the seeming rightness of the universe for the emergence of self-conscious life. He speculates that the cosmos may contain a drive for life, for self-consciousness, and even for qualities such as love. Though it's taboo to raise such possibilities, this "life principle" is a plausible hypothesis, he writes. It's a breathtaking thought when set alongside the vastness of the universe's unfolding: at least 13.8 billion years in time and 90 billion light years in space that is permeated by this gentle, unfailing pull.

To put it another way, a cosmic life principle presents us with our own relationship to the great flow of life. Further, it lifts us out of any humdrum experience of life and affords us a glimpse of the mystery of life and death. And more: is not to see one's own life as a reflection of an instinct for awareness that pulses through the cosmos, to die a little to self? Is it not to feel one's existence within a wider whole, flaming forth from an animating principle, the divine Word? It's what Dante realizes too as he is blessed by Mars.


Can we make the next move towards Jupiter, the realm of order, justice and serenity? Each of the souls Dante sees here has a place, rejoices in her place, and works harmoniously alongside all others. Interestingly, it is also the domain in which no one speaks to the pilgrim.

In relation to modern cosmology, a parallel experience might be to receive an intuition of the ineffable lawfulness of the universe. Under the white light of Jupiter, the laws of nature that science can articulate come to be known as echoes of a higher, harmonious order.

Albert Einstein smiles at us in this realm. On Earth, he had professed the type of pantheism advocated by Spinoza. It identifies God with nature but, unlike reductive forms of pantheism, does not forget the dependency of nature upon God: God is not another being but the Being of nature itself.

This theological carefulness sprang from his intellectual humility, his "veneration for a force beyond anything that we can comprehend." My conceit is that his terrestrial humility secures him a place in Jupiter's celestial domain because it ensures that his genius served a greater worship of the cosmic mystery. He spoke of "a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds." He knew nature as a wonderful phenomenon shaped according to lawful patterns and coordinated movements. You could say he loved "Jove's justice", to echo the words that appear to Dante in this sphere.


There is a contemplation that is another step on, in Saturn. Dante now sees a ladder that can lift the soul out of the heavenly spheres altogether, and so closer still to God. Even music and Beatrice's loving smile, Dante realizes, are imprints of a lower beauty from which he must become detached if he is to continue. He must prepare himself to rise on a metaphysics that acknowledges a world of pure spirit that is radically independent of the material world. It's a form of Platonism, and one shared by the Oxford physicist who taught Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose.

For Penrose, Platonism provides the best description of why the human mind can do science at all. There must be a link between a metaphysical reality and physical reality, and it is made through the intelligence we know as mind. Though Penrose publicly remains neutral about the existence of God, I think he can be thought of as a fellow traveller with Peter Damian, the medieval contemplative whom Dante meets in Saturn. Damian's words to the poet capture the tremendous dynamic inherent in Platonic insight: "A ray of God's light focuses on me and penetrates the light enwombing me, whose force once joined to that of my own sight, lifts me above myself until I see the Primal Source..."

The metaphor of a ray of light carries a striking additional resonance too. I once spoke with Penrose about the nature of light. He told me that, according to the theories of relativity, light does not exist in time. That is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light, and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. Time would have to slow to a halt, requiring an infinite amount of energy - a lift to eternity, you might say, given that eternity is the world of timelessness. And then Penrose added a personal thought.

He described arriving at his office in the morning and turning on the lights. The room floods with photons, cascading sparks of timeless brightness. "It's like being bathed in eternity," he murmured, almost to himself. It seemed to me that this everyday act, transformed by a deep cosmological mystery, was simultaneously akin to a mystical experience, momentarily lifting him out of time altogether. Surely it is to glimpse high into the divine heavens.

Moon, Venus, Sun. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. In the poem, Dante continues, journeying on. But perhaps that's enough to suggest there are ways of reclaiming, and inhabiting, Dante's "discarded image".


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