Sunday, June 26 2016

The soul of Europe

A Sunday Sermon for The Idler.

I voted Remain. I believe Leave is a mistake. But the UK is now in a new place. The ground has shifted. Or has it?

There are steadier links that haven't changed. They are older than the EU. And they might assist us by reminding us of these islands' happier roots in Europe. In fact, I'm beginning half to hope that the removal of the promise of cheaper German washing-machines and Spanish holidays could release us to want deeper connections: the cultural and spiritual wellsprings of our union.

Move in your mind to the other side of Europe, to the sunny eastern end of the blue Mediterranean, and think of one of the continent's most successful creations: the Corinthian column. Discovered in the 5th century BC, in ancient Greece, no city or town is now complete without one. And they're worth contemplating for the spirit they convey, something of the soul of Europe.

The Corinthian capital's acanthus leaves spring up from a high votive basket. They stand for life pushing up from the soil. Hence, a Corinthian column does not support its load, like its Doric cousin, but elevates it. Think of the West End of St Paul's cathedral: its portico does not rest on stone leaves, it floats above them, apparently lighter than air. Or think of Nelson on his column: he becomes god-like, lifted into a heavenly realm.

The Corinthian capital invites us to look up, to reach out, to grow. It speaks of virtue in action, not mere utility: nobility is the Corinthian capital of civil order, wrote Edmund Burke. The Corinthian column remembers that the best architecture is "frozen music", not boxes in glass: its fluting holds an echo of the silent melody that the natural world conveys. Ancient Greece first invited us to strive for double vision, as possessed by William Blake, that "inward eye" which can feel the soul of life and politics, and help us contain edgy gut instincts.

Plato operationalized this aspiration for Europeans by being the first to champion education, and the skills required not to survive but flourish. He advocated it not only for freemen, as the Athenian democracy had assumed, but for women and slaves too. He initiated the long struggle that opened people's minds to the spiritual worth of individuals, and how that matters more than birth or status.

England's greatest son, Shakespeare, made Plato's vocation his own. His history plays are meditations on the meaning of turbulent times. Remember Falstaff and Hal. I reckon* Falstaff stands for the English soul when it loses its focus. Sack replaces spirit. "What is honour? a word... What is that honour? air," Falstaff sneers. He is lost to distractions; fears for himself; celebrates by jeering.

Little wonder that Hal has to banish him to establish a kingdom of friendship. It's a vision that moves England from the regimented feudalism of Richard II, with its gap between landed and poor, to the freedom of Henry V, in which "English may as French, French Englishmen, Receive each other."

Higher vision always runs the risks of hubris, and nationalism. It's no coincidence that Sisyphus was the first king of Corinth. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, depicts him as the political type who, desiring power for power's sake, is fated to meaningless victories and defeats - a lifetime rolling the boulder again to the top of the hill.

But another English Platonist, Thomas Traherne, understood that the European experiment in vision will not, finally, let us down - and he lived through the blood-letting of the English civil war. What he realised is that fulfillment doesn't originate in economics. Happiness doesn't necessarily follow institutional union. Rather, liberation comes when we act as if our souls see "The very brightness of Eternity; For Man to Act even in the Wilderness, As if he did those Sovereign Joys possess."

Only those joys offer us personal sovereignty, because they link us to the place that's truly our home. Such is the indigenous spirituality of Europe. It belongs to no-one, and is ours each to know. Like the acanthus leaves, it springs up from the ground of our being, and draws us towards a more subtle union.

*With thanks to a recent lecture by Valentine Gerlier


Thursday, June 2 2016

Why is there something not nothing?

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing why there is something not nothing.

This ancient question has resurfaced in modern science and atheism. The discovery of the Big Bang as a beginning for the universe in the 20th century was a complete surprise, igniting a debate about what caused everything, space and time, to spring into being. The hint that a cause beyond science is implied has been picked up by prominent atheists who have tried to supply scientific accounts of "nothing" from which the universe - or a multiverse - could emerge.

They don't achieve their goal and, though they reject it, philosophy can show why. And the question remains a fascinating one. We explore how the ancient discussion of the relationship between something and nothing can profoundly inform the contemporary debate.


Saturday, May 14 2016

What is the systemic view?

In this new series of podcasts, Abigail Peters and I have a third discussion, this time about what is meant by the systemic view.

We discuss concepts such as what it means not to be an individual but part of living networks - family, cultural, at work - and how we can find ourselves living in the service of these system, in ways that may or may not make for our flourishing. The podcast is on iTunes or can be listened to here.

For more information about forthcoming workshops do email,


Friday, April 29 2016

Cycles of civilisations

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the rise and fall of civilisations.

So where is the west in this cycle? Can the widespread sense of pending crisis - be it economic, environmental or political - be understood in relation to the ideas of Oswald Spengler, Owen Barfield or David Fleming? And can signs of new vitality, vision and participation be found, as if the crisis may also be the birthpangs of a new spirituality and consciousness?

We explore how a sense of connection and disconnection, excitement and fear, can be traced back to the thought of Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. We ask where it's possible to discover soul.


Wednesday, April 27 2016

A time to mourn

This piece was published by Newsweek.

It's odd that we think of nostalgia as a feeling to indulge. We play an old record, listen to a favorite sketch, relive a scene from a film - things that many might be doing now, given the recent deaths of Prince and David Bowie, Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling and Alan Rickman. Odd, because nostalgia is a kind of pain. The root of the word is shared with neuralgia, nerve pain, except that nostalgia is literally "home pain". It's an acute longing for the familiar.

This is what celebrity deaths stir up in us: the loss of what's gone. And because celebrities often once captured powerful hopes and emotions in their music and performances, their deaths can be genuinely unsettling.

Their passing - prompting repeats on the radio and images on screen - can also stir up unfinished business hidden in the depths of our psyches. That can reignite a residue of unmourned emotion left from a different category of deaths: those who were very close to us, perhaps a parent, a partner, a child.

Sigmund Freud was onto this dynamic. He detected a risk when we lose someone with whom we are intimately bound. The risk is that with those deaths, we lose too much. We can't comprehend what's gone. The gap is overwhelming and consumes us in a miasma of grief from which it feels there's no escape.

The philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, caught the horror of this experience when he wrote of the early death of his closest friend and soulmate. "We were halves throughout. By outliving him, I defraud him of his part. I am no more than half of myself. There is no action or imagination of mine wherein I do not miss him."

Freud described this experience as a shift from mourning to melancholia - or depression, as it would be labeled now. It's as if we enter a state of mind in which everything is blackened by emptiness, absence, departure. We can't mourn the loved one because that person was, in a way, the whole of life to us. The residue of that ache may linger for years.

Then, someone famous dies. Suddenly, mourning becomes possible. The icon meant a lot but, unlike a parent or partner or child, was not half of us. And so it's a loss that can be felt. It precipitates an outpouring of grief - the death of Diana comes to mind - that is as much an unblocking of the deeper melancholia as it is sadness at the departure of the celebrity. The tears are real. But they are about more than the shock of the immediate news.

What this suggests to me is that there is a kind of art to mourning, though one we are hindered with today. We're not very well served by our culture because it tends to keep the genuine tragedy of death at bay.

You see it in the trend to hold celebrations for a life rather than funerals. The urge to do so is understandable: there is a time to give thanks. But there is also a time to mourn, and that might be denied.

Or death becomes hidden from us because, due to increased longevity, it happens mostly to those who are old - homed and hospitalized out of sight. That's perhaps why this year's celebrity deaths amongst stars who are relatively young is shocking. We've forgotten that death is found in the midst of life.

Wisdom traditions advise practicing mourning. Socrates said that philosophy is learning to die. Buddhists meditate before skeletons. Christians keep Good Friday. And it's good advice. Lesser losses - even the end of the day, the final page of a good book, the browning of the cherry blossom - can be opportunities to practice the fact of demise. They won't be overwhelming as big deaths can be. But we may still recoil from them and reach for a distraction rather than experience the difficult feelings. Maybe it's wiser to linger.

That's perhaps the departed celebrity's final gift to us: a moment to live their deaths and so know some of the feelings around our own. It's nostalgia in a healing sense: an embrace of life in all its tricky fullness.


Saturday, April 9 2016

The Meaning of Money

A Sunday Sermon from The Idler.

Money is making the news - or to be more specific, off-shore money that supposedly affords the über-rich a glamorous life that most of us can only dream of.

But it's odd, the minute you think about it. Take the other big story of last week, the unexpected paternity revelation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also carried the distinctive sound of sloshing excess money, though with a very different tone. Justin Welby comes from a privileged background. He was sent to Eton. When his mother was short of money, the establishment secured her a job at Number 10 and a flat in Hyde Park Gate. The source of DNA for Welby's deceased father was found on ivory-backed, monogrammed hairbrushes. And yet, it's quite clear that money bought Welby no happiness. "The poor child was left like a little football," his biological father is said once to have remarked.

So when we all know that money doesn't buy happiness, why do we get so excited about it? I think it's because no-one is quite sure just what money is.

Attempts to answer the question are ancient. The theory that tends to capture the imagination can be sourced to Aristotle. He argued that in complex societies, marked by citizens seeking very different lives, there is a need for something universal that everyone desires. That universal something facilitates exchange. Say that I make shoes and you make hats, but I don't want a hat though you want shoes. We therefore need some third thing that both of us value. For much of civilized human history that universal something has been gold - or silver or bronze; some type of valuable metal.

It's left us feeling that money is real; something that can be meaningfully accumulated; something that is worth being jealous of; that is worth organising your life in pursuit of. You can feel the weight of it in your pocket, see the sum of it in your bank. And it's a plausible theory. A friend of mine, who's a banker, said he realised he was fascinated by money when as a child he received his pocket-money as a fiver, when his friends only got coins. He was the envy of the playground and he's been gripped by the power of money ever since.

So here's a startling thought. Perhaps money isn't anything real at all. After all, stashed in the bank, or an off-shore account, it does you no good. For that, you have to spend it. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a wonderful expression for stored, inert money: "frozen desire". Those who live their lives with more filthy lucre than they can spend become a bit frozen, a bit dazzling, a bit dead, he thought. He's not alone. Plato observed, in the wealthy Athens of his day, that those who have made fortunes are often boring company because they only really value others who have made fortunes.

So Plato offered another answer to the question of what money is. He argued it wasn't primarily a means of exchange, though it can be that. Rather, it was a symbol. And onto that symbol can be projected all manner of worries, hopes, aspirations, dreams.

I think this idea about the nature of money explains more. For one thing, it's actually the way the modern economy has gone, since the abandonment of the gold standard in the 1930s. Today, money is usually called fiat money: it is printed by governments at will. It comes with a promise on it. But that promise is in itself meaningless, and that's the point. Money can therefore come to mean almost anything to anyone. Hence, last week, the prime minister's off-shore money brought into focus all sorts of complaints and resentments, and there was nothing he could do to stop the vitriol that came his way.

Plato thought it's worth remembering that money is only a symbol because he hoped that educated citizens would be able to contain what it symbolised. Some things can be usefully bought with money, yes. But other things cannot - for example, happiness

What seems to have happened in late capitalist cultures, such as our own, is that we've forgotten to limit our understanding of money. It's become almost everything. To recall a saying of the person who finally brought Justin Welby happiness, Jesus of Nazareth: the risk is that you serve money like you serve God. But whereas the latter gives life, the former simply cannot.

When it breaks all bounds, money gains a terrible pseudo-divine power over us. But if Plato is right, you can be sure it's not real. It's just a symbol. And when we worship mere symbols, our civilization really is on the rocks.


Sunday, March 27 2016

Is life tragedy or comedy?

A Sunday Sermon for Easter Day…

Is life a tragedy or a comedy? The ancient question is worth revisiting when Easter falls early and Spring is still striving to establish herself; when the happiness of a prospective holiday is tinged by terrorist threats at the airport; when tens of millions want Donald Trump to be the most powerful man in the world.

By tragedy, I don't mean "when the morning cries and you don't know why", to quote the eponymous song of the Bee Gees. Such sadness, after all, can at least be touched by a heartfelt lyric. No. Tragedy is meaninglessness beyond reach. It's what Nietzsche felt about the death of God: the sun is unhinged, the world has grown cold, we're adrift in empty space.

By a comedy, I don't mean that life's challenges can be lightened by a well placed laugh, though they can. Rather, it's the archaic sense of comedy I'm after, as in Dante's Divine Comedy. This is the hard won realisation that life's darkness is actually the prelude to the dawn of life's broader completion. Comedy is the fairytale with a happy ending, not out of wish fulfillment, but because the sinister middle passage has been endured and has precipitated an awakening.

Writers like Christopher Hamilton, who has just published A Philosophy of Tragedy (Reaktion), reject life as comedy. Who can affirm that after Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz? They plunge deep into the "suffering, failure, confusion and homelessness" of the tragic experience of life, and argue that staring it unflinchingly in the face is infinitely better than the other tragedy towards which comedy would entice us: easing the load with faux-meaning.

The tragic view is probably the default credo of our times. Consumer faux-meaning tacitly acknowledges it: shop or drop. It's between the lines of cheerful self-help books, paradoxically implied in their cascade of upbeat tips and consolations: keep trying, because trying is all there is. I think it's there in the growing trend for humanist funerals, which - understandably but in my view mistakenly - aren't called funerals but celebrations. It's as if the parent or partner is remembered on an island of care, and for an hour those present turn their backs on surrounding oceans of presumed indifference. Nietzsche saw it coming. If reality at core is no more than our folly and sufferings, all that remains is the fragile will to live.

Comedy understands that folly and sufferings are facts of life, but senses they are not the bare facts. There is always, eventually more to be said, felt, understood. It argues that tragedy's claim to be squaring up to reality is, in fact, two things. First, a projection of fear onto the cosmos that is then experienced as a void; it's what happens when we're overwhelmed. Second, a refusal to give up being the author of oneself when, in truth, we never were nor entirely will be.

So, it's different from the Panglossian belief that all things turn out for the best, or that suffering has a meaning. It's rather that suffering has a place, just not the whole place. It's the intuition that the blackest moments are black but can still be touched by love; that despair whilst easily defeating manic optimism is not stronger than Malala's courage or Mandela's hope.

Put it like this. There is a deeper logic to reality than tragedy allows. I wonder if it's illuminating to ask why you can't say, "there's a lack of cold," when you can say, "there's a lack of heat." The point is that coldness is the removal of heat, but heat is not the removal of coldness. Heat is the reality. Coldness can only be defined in relation to heat.

So too with love and fear, or gift and possession, or life and death. Fear, possessiveness and death appear sovereign when it's forgotten that they are really forms of existential forgetfulness. Fear is a lack of love's connection. Possessiveness is a denial that life's a gift. Death is a part of life in a way that life could never be a part of death.

Which is also to say, Happy Easter.


Saturday, March 26 2016

The New Asceticism by Sarah Coakley

This review is published in the new issue, and the last, of Third Way

Desire has always been a problem in the church, perhaps the main problem. And yet, implies Sarah Coakley, this should come as no surprise. Christianity is, at heart, about the human desire for God. Her new book, which weaves together a series of talks and so provides a readable introduction to her theology, finds its focus in the flourishing of desire expressed in the Trinitarian understanding of God. It's a basic theological dynamic that Coakley argues individual Christians and church leaders alike repeatedly lose sight of when the desire for God is unleashed.

As it must be, because becoming a Christian begins with the yearning to know God called Father - the verb "know" meant in the Biblical sense: the most basic sense of knowing has always implied a union with what is known. As Paul intimated in the crucial eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, this yearning is discovered to actually be God's because, as Paul puts it, the Spirit groans within us with a desire too profound for words. It is God's longing for cosmic rebirth and renewal. But there's a crucial step that must now be taken. Desire must be purged if it is truly to know God. In particular, its inclination towards possessiveness must be converted into the kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. In short, in coming to know the Father by the energy of the Spirit, we become like Christ. At least, that is, when the transformation is going well.

A key figure for Coakley is Gregory of Nyssa. This fourth century Greek bishop offers an approach to desire that is radically different from those typically adopted in the western church. The latter has tended to faintheartedness in the face of the desires that the Spirit stirs. It has wanted to control and contain, within ecclesiastically enforced limits; it has been nervous of the sexual imagery that the exploration of desire inevitably requires because the desire for God is an erotic desire for more from life. But in Gregory, Coakley finds a fascinating figure who never recoils with distaste. And moreover, offers an approach to the transformation of desire that offers crucial leads for us today.

Take his first treatise, On Virginity. It is an arresting choice of subject because Gregory was married at the time he wrote it. The question arises as to how or why he so celebrated this virtue? The answer is that literal virginity is, for Gregory, the least interesting form of virginity. At its most developed, it is a state of mind in which all desires intentionally channel towards God. This means, for example, that simply being celibate is not nearly enough. In fact, the celibate who keeps his vow but turns to the bottle or becomes overbearingly churchy may be being less true to the Christian vocation than the married person who, through an exploration of desire in a faithful relationship with another, comes to a rich often painful understanding of the ups and downs of love.

Gregory had the advantage of being Greek and, therefore, of reading Plato. Plato realised that the palace of wisdom is found via the road of excess, as William Blake was subsequently to put it. In fact, the experience of falling in love may be a crucial first intimation of the path towards God. Think of what falling in love is like, Plato advises. It's wanting what is beautiful and good. At first, that's mistakenly over-identified with the newfound beloved, as becomes apparent in any relationship that matures. But that's not the important thing early on. Rather, it's that the individual has fallen for the alluring power of what's beautiful and good - the desires that can carry them to God.

It's a journey through the narrow gate, for sure. The shadow of love's dream is a nightmare, because it continually runs the risk of not getting what it wants, and so forcefully taking what it wants. That's why, in Christian terms, the possessiveness of love must be transformed into the pattern of Christ's love. But again, married life offers helpful models here. After all, what is the desire to have children if not the moreness of the love that originally wanted only the beloved, evolving into a kind of over-spilling of love that wants to share its love with the offspring of that love? If that has a Trinitarian feel to it - love over-spilling in love to share with the offspring of love - then that's because Trinitarian desire energies reality.

Discipline is crucial in all this, hence the new asceticism of Coakley's title. Without the purging, there is no fulfillment. But perhaps we need new resources to inspire the discipline, as the old ones so easily feel as if they are closing life down, not opening life up. Take the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when the goal of love is so quickly aligned with sexual consummation. But courtly love sought the more patient goals that asceticism at its best aims for too. The knight fell in love with an unavailable lady so that the love would be indefinitely delayed. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, he was transformed, becoming gentle, aware, kind - more Christlike. Love nurtures experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unaware.

Coakley's work is important because it goes to the heart of what we need to address in Christianity today - not just the problems faced by the church, but what might make Christianity attractive in a culture that yearns for the spiritual dimension and yet doesn't consider that the church has anything substantial to offer it. That's because, in many of the church's current manifestations, it doesn't. But the deep wisdom about desire that's in the tradition, and is always longing to be reawakened, can stir us all anew.


Friday, March 18 2016

Classics with the transcendence ripped out

This comment piece is in this week's Church Times.

A debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard, on the virtues of Greece and Rome, recently drew an audience of thousands. Greek philosophy and classical history routinely secure primetime slots on TV and radio. Books on similar themes abound. The Classics hold a surprising fascination for we twenty-first century moderns.

And yet, contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless or aimless.

Maybe the likes of Johnson and Beard get nervous when it comes to gods or metaphysics. Reputations are at stake. But the loss of this crucial dynamic matters because it goes to the heart of much with which we today are struggling, from mental health to climate change. If the Greeks have anything for us, it might well be the element that has gone missing. And it's one that should concern Christians too.

Most of the media treats the Classics in much the same way as it treats matters from the history of science to issues in ethics: cut from the discussion is anything that fails to fit into a secular narrative. Take the presentation of the ancient philosophers. Broadly speaking, it's said that they developed human reason, overcame religious superstition, and thereby liberated the human mind. You could say: logic plus democracy equals progressive godlessness. Science and reason are treated as diamond-sharp tools that surgically unpick the myths and metaphysics of the past. Public discourse has developed an unthinking habit that pitches enlightenment against divinity.

But the ancient philosophers had an entirely different vision of things, one that might refresh our vision now. They saw reason as a gift that reveals an extraordinary truth: the human mind can share in a cosmic reality that far exceeds its own understanding. Reason's greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open onto transcendent vistas upon which the soul can gaze and feed. Consider how Lucretius celebrates Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, who is today often praised as a poster boy for modern atheism: "The keen force of his mind conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his soul." Ancient Epicureans kept their founder's birthday like a saint's day, and granted his request to honour his "holy body".

It's why Aristotle said that philosophy begins and ends in wonder not empirical evidence, or knock-out proofs, or self-consistent conclusions. It's why figures like Thales and Pythagoras rushed to the temple when they gained insights into magnets or music: they were not indulging superstitious customs that die hard, but were reframing religious practices as thanksgivings for sharing in the cosmic mind. Similarly, nature is not primarily for us to exploit, but rather for us to connect with and know - an attitude that it's clear we've lost, if you think about our failures to meet challenges such as climate change.

If we could regain the ancients' transcendent imagination, we might regain an immanent experience of our connection with nature. Caring for the environment might cease to feel like a moral burden and come to be felt as a joyful good. I suspect such a sensibility would make Christianity more attractive too: less a question of judging creedal probabilities about the resurrection or miracles; more a welcome to engage deeply in a felt sense of God.

To put it another way, what ancient philosophy offers is a pathway towards the transformation of your soul. Indeed, it nurtures the sense of having a soul, another perception that the secular narrative undermines. The soul can be likened to the liveliness of a poem — the very poetry, you might say. It is conveyed, but exceeds the material “body” of the poem, namely the words.

An undeveloped soul is like an unfinished poem. It's flat. It feels empty because its full potential is not realized. People are similar, the ancient philosophers realized. Only worse, they suffer from the emptiness too. The loss may manifest itself in addictions, or persistent and crippling anxieties, or a diminished and depressed sense of vitality. So they developed a range of practices - including meditations and visualizations, rituals and rites, community-living and reason - to awaken the soul. Many of these are becoming popular again, though sadly, often outside of Christian circles.

In fact, it's more accurate to think of ancient philosophers as monks and nuns. They lived a way of life that was dedicated to manifesting a vision of reality in their lives. Their therapy was not primarily designed to get you through the day. It was designed to release you from a restricted view of things in order to become aware of the deeper pulse upon which life rest, in which we live and move and have our being, as the Stoics used to say before St Paul borrowed the expression.

Again, this has direct implications for today. Take Stoicism. It's core advice was to learn to notice how you respond to what happens to you. It was the inspiration behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now widely available on the NHS. And yet, longitudinal studies of CBT's efficacy are increasingly showing that it does not deliver what it promised. The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why. If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.

Socrates became wise when he appreciated how little he understood. He realised that although the scientists of his day could theorize about the cosmos, and although the engineers of Athens could construct the Parthenon in nine impressive years, this ability to manipulate was being mistaken for wisdom about what the soul requires. He learnt that a civilisation's moment of greatest peril is when it is at its material peak. Human hubris then feels it can master all things, and exceed the ways of the gods. It's another lesson the Classics, in their fullness, might prompt us to consider.


Sunday, March 6 2016

What's to fear from virtual reality?

I'm no luddite but there's something to understand in the anxiety immersive technologies provoke.

It's been a good couple of weeks for virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg put on a clean t-shirt and welcomed us to the future he knows we're all waiting for. It's going to change the way we work and communicate, he preached, making it sound exhausting: imagine your stuffed inbox impatient for attention not only in your pocket but winking in your field of view. VR headsets are set to revolutionize everything from horror movies to health care - except that at the same time, they may isolate us from one another, lost in solipsistic fantasies, with 3D porn addicts quelling panic attacks and nascent psychoses, the critics sigh.

Now, who can tell what the new technology will do. When the railways arrived in Camberwell, in 1872, resident John Ruskin called for his horse-drawn carriage and never returned. It was probably an overreaction. Then again, commuters from Denmark Hill may now half know what he feared. But it's worth trying to gain a sense of why the prospect of ubiquitous virtual reality feels unsettling; a risk. Forewarned is forearmed.

Martin Heidegger can help us. The German philosopher wrote an essay in 1954 entitled, The Question Concerning Technology. It pinpoints the crucial issue. The difficulty with technology, he said, is not that it enhances our lives. It does. Rather, it's that it radically prescribes the life it enhances in the process.

He realised as much on holiday, cruising on the Mediterranean. Pocket cameras were then the latest thing. And he noticed how the technology reframed the holiday experience. When the ship pulled into a new port, his fellow tourists were no longer excited about the sites they might see or the food they might eat. They pushed their way to the dockward side and gangplank in order to secure the best composition for a photograph. The trip was judged by the quality of snaps secured. Technology simultaneously enhanced the experience whilst also dramatically narrowing what the experience would be.

When he reflected further, Heidegger wondered whether the situation was worse. The ports of Cannes and Venice, Athens and Alexandria had ceased to be romantic places with a history and presence of their own, at which strangers might gaze and wonder. The technology transformed them into stage sets, with a value determined by their usefulness as a means of impressing envious family back home. The camera turned tourists in on themselves. It collapsed their worlds, strangling any openness to the numinosity of new destinations. The selfie stick, which shrinks the cosmos to a backdrop for me, is just the logical endpoint of the technology's quiet control.

The philosopher Jeremy Naydler applies Heidegger's warning to virtual reality, in an essay entitled, Living in the Shadow of the Machine. Technology increasingly hardens our forgetfulness of unmediated experiences, he argues. It makes us more dependent upon it by insisting that we orientate our lives towards it, rather than towards life itself. I suppose that's why people yearn not just for a smart phone but the latest smart phone. It's as if we're missing something without it. "A certain weakness insinuates itself into the soul," he continues, because our sense of equanimity is no longer secured in nature, God, or the soul but is toyed with by the relatively trifling and endlessly flickering dance on the screen.

Naydler notes that one of the most spooky VR developments comes courtesy of an experience called a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or CAVE for short. It's an immersive reality named after the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic. Only, whereas Plato argued we need to escape from the cave because its "reality" is merely shadows, CAVE invites us to remain perpetually as prisoners. Which most prisoners prefer, as in Plato's story.

Conversely, it's no surprise, then, that gardening and walking, house design and cooking boom in the silicon age. We gaze at growing grass and a setting sun in a daze of half-remembering that life can be embodied. Except that another technology already prescribed the experience for us. The TV. We watch others planting, creating. It's possible that the populous is actually gardening and cooking less, even as interest in the activities increases, because the technology has already narrowed the invitation: don't dig potatoes be couch potatoes.

That's the fear, then. That's the sense of trouble. Psychic fragmentation will be a constant threat as VR users resign their life and perhaps fatally neglect their ground.


Wednesday, February 24 2016

Conversations about Constellations - What happens in a workshop?

In this new series of podcasts, Abigail Peters and I have a second discussion, this time about what a constellations workshop looks like. We discuss concepts like representation and the field, and explore how what unfolds in a workshop can be understood as therapy. The podcast is on iTunes or can be listened to here.

Our next workshop is on Saturday 5th March.


Sunday, February 14 2016

Conversations about Constellations - What is Love?

In this first in a new series of podcasts, Abigail Peters and I talk about how love is understood in family constellations.

Love is understood as a flow of life in systemic therapy, which can be blocked when individuals become unconsciously confused by the ways in which the flow was hindered in their families. They can consciously experience that as difficulties in relationships, repeated patterns, and so on. The paradox is that seeing and acknowledging the system's difficulties with love frees the individual to receive the love that is there to resource them in their own life on-going. Download the conversation from iTunes here...

Our next workshop is on Saturday 5th March.


Mystical eroticism and Valentine's Day

With thanks for the inspirational teaching on courtly love and Dante from Jeremy Naydler of the Temenos Academy.

The BBC is airing a documentary on the relationship between the former pope, now saint, John Paul II and the "sexually attractive" married academic Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. No-one's saying he asked her to be his Valentine. But the innuendo is clear. And speaks of a huge loss, I'd say, about how we now understand and imagine love.

These days, love gets sucked into the singularity of sexual action as relentlessly as light is sucked into a black hole. Since Freud, it's said, there's only one question to ask about eros: will it fall into bed? In truth, the founder of psychoanalysis realised exactly the opposite is true: human sexuality is so loaded with complications and meanings that coitus is usually the least interesting thing about it. He should be remembered for attempting to recover a far richer understanding of love which most of humanity, for most of history, had access to too.

Think of the experience of falling in love. You brush hands. A touch that yesterday would hardly have registered, now thrills you. You spot your beloved across the crowd: the face that previously would have blurred into the masses beams out like a star. You tell your friend about the discovery, an event that has turned your life inside out. They sit silently, indulgently whilst musing: hmm, sounds alright.

It's as if you're given a second sight, double vision. The beloved is no longer only a member of the species homo sapiens, a sample from the population sociologists call humans. They are an individual, uniquely offering happiness, pleasure, excitement, promise. When you venture to say, I love you, the words that billions have borrowed before carry a message that's yours, way in excess of the familiar formula. You no longer see a face, you know a soul. You aren't alongside, you are in a presence. You no longer feel flesh, you are embraced by the universe.

We need to take notice of these implicit, hidden senses when they ignite. Love prompts their ecstasy, even in the age that officially trusts only the empirical, instrumental, measureable. Lovers idle away the hours and, economically, they uselessly waste time. But to those whose eyes have been opened, idling the days in the company of love cannot be better spent. It is to embark on a transformative journey of depth.

It was celebrated in the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when we want mostly to know what the pope and the academic did next. But courtly love sought more patient goals. The knight fell in love with an unavailable, married lady so that the love couldn't be consummated. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, the knight became gentle, aware, kind. The beloved nurtured experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unconscious. It was as if she became the lost half of his own soul. When he saw her, he might realise that he did not want her but rather what she graciously channeled and conveyed. That's why Beatrice berates Dante when he finally catches up with her on the doorstep of heaven. Did you not see, she sighs? When you glimpsed me and I glanced at you, that glimpse and glance were like a knife slicing open the subtle path to paradise?

But now is the time of "single vision and Newton's sleep", to quote William Blake. Eros struggles to open the double vision Blake testifies his eyes "do see". Only, perhaps Valentine's Day gives us pause. Maybe it holds out the hope that love's power remains. Implicit in the expensive roses, the red cards, the potent sentiments lies love's alternative potential. Eyes meet and the inner beloved may be awoken. Yearnings might be detected that do not collapse onto the sexual. The hope could be not for a lover but a soulmate.

Nurture that moment. Suffer the suspense. A mystical eroticism can fulfill not just physical desires but spiritual aspirations. "Love is unto itself a higher law," wrote Boethius after Lady Philosophy appeared to him in prison. "How happy is mankind, if the love that orders the stars above rules, too, in their hearts."


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


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