Tuesday, October 7 2014

Freud the sceptic, Idler Academy talk

Few people take Freud at face value anymore. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But he did us a great service. After Freud, it's much harder to ignore the fact that we are not the commanders of our consciousness. We do things that we wished we hadn't done, and don't do things we wish we had. Even more so when it comes to feelings when, on occasion, we are swept away by rage, envy, hate.

To put it another way, we don't really know ourselves; can rapidly become strangers to ourselves. If you pay enough attention you quickly come to realise that the bit you feel you do know, which Freud called the ego, is only one part of the complex system called the human psyche. Waking thoughts are just the tip of the unconscious iceberg.

In fact, Freud was not the first to realise that there is more to our inner lives than we might or can be aware of. The ancient Hellenistic philosophers known as Epicureans and Stoics realised that there are many situations when we cannot control ourselves. We might will it, but another part of us won't it. They reasoned that we must have feelings we don't feel; desires we don't realise we're slaves to.

But arguably, the ancient philosophy school that Freud followed most closely were the sceptics. In the Greek, sceptic means searcher or enquirer, and they were entirely unlike modern day 'sceptics'. They did not go around debunking other people's beliefs, a strategy that Freud would have instantly realised is defensive since the upshot is that it protects your own beliefs. Rather, the ancient and true sceptics tried to go let go of their consciousness understandings and see what novelties and fears might emerge.

Put it this way. Although you may think you are walking through life with your eyes open, they realised that in truth we may as well have our eyes closed. So they metaphorically shut their eyes and embraced the bumps and blows. They found it was not only therapeutic, leading in time to an unexpected inner tranquility. They found that actually they discovered far more about life in the process because they could tolerate, even welcome, what life threw at them. To use Freudian language, they became far less defensive.

Freud developed another technique called free association. He encouraged his patients to speak out whatever comes into their mind. It sounds easy, but it's hard. In fact, free association - speaking whatever the life of the mind throws at you - is more likely to be the end point and achievement of psychoanalysis rather than it's starting point. It opens up the unconscious and that is often frightening. But also, the search is intriguing and unexpectedly revealing. It can, in time, lead to an entirely new experience of life, one that embraces the darkness of the psyche, and ends at least some of our inner fights, anxieties and struggles.

We'll talk more about Freud at the Idler Academy on Monday 20th October.

And also about Jung at the Idler Academy on Monday 27th October. 

Book here!


Friday, October 3 2014

New Science and Religion talks, Institute of Art and Ideas

How did consciousness arise? Is the universe rational? Is there a meaning to life? Once these questions were the domain of the sacred, but in the modern world, science offers very different answers to religion.

In this course, Dr Mark Vernon explores the common ground between these allegedly incompatible world views. But which can provide us with the best description of reality?

Part One: The Battleground. Vernon reveals the history of the science-religion conflict and its place in our culture.

Part Two: Alternatives to the Conflict. Can we think about science and religion differently and avoid the conflict altogether?

Part Three: Science and Consciousness. Vernon proposes a new model for solving the problem: does consciousness hold the key?


Tuesday, September 16 2014

BBC Beyond Belief - agnosticism

Agnosticism was the subject for this week's Beyond Belief, on BBC Radio 4.

I was trying to make the case for an agnostic spirit that is not just an option for some but actually part and parcel of the human condition and crucial for theists who want to undo their inevitable idols.

You can pursue the issue at book length too!


Friday, September 5 2014

LPC Wisdom event - Rupert Sheldrake on science and spiritual practices

Thursday 25th September, St George's Church, Bloomsbury

Book here!

Rupert Sheldrake writes: "Science has done much to alienate us from our direct, intuitive experience of nature. But now the sciences themselves are transcending the materialist world-view, and recent experimental research points to the reality of our intuitive and mental connections to the world around us."

Rupert Sheldrake will show how the sciences can now illuminate aspects of spiritual practices including pilgrimage, the power of sacred places, rituals, rites of passage, meditation and prayer.

Entry will be five pounds. There will be the opportunity to get a glass of wine before the event, and doors will be open at around 7.00. We will finish at roughly 9.00.

Book here!

This event is part of a series organized by Jules Evans and Mark Vernon, called 'LPC : Wisdom' , exploring the ancient idea of philosophy as the love of wisdom.


Monday, August 11 2014

Southbank summer of love festival

I enjoyed this definition of philia in the festival posters, and was struck by how much agape was around - a rather Christian kind of love… And so am glad to be contributing with a talk on philautia this Saturday too.


Monday, August 4 2014

God-shaped hole, discussion at Things Unseen

Is there a God-shaped hole at the heart of our post-Christian world?

Does it matter? Is it all potential gain, with freedom of expression and liberation from oppression at last possible? Or are there unforeseen losses, too? Has the decline in religious practice and ritual opened up a void now all too easily filled with consumerism, the social media, and a preoccupation with therapy and self-help? Indeed, with ‘oneself’?

Mark Dowd chairs a discussion on this controversial issue with Peter Stanford, Mark Vernon and Julian Baggini.


Thursday, July 31 2014

Civilisation in peril - three online recommendations

1. Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, talked to Jules Evans, producing a really very remarkable interview.

Our spiritual culture at the moment is so impoverished and primitive. People find it extraordinarily difficult to be serious about angels or discarnate energies.

It’s a very modern tragedy that religion has become ideas in the mind. That’s why western religion is so feeble.

But alas we do not have many places where one can go today to learn and practice contemplation – we are very needy.

We don’t seek illumination from the whole but from bits and pieces. This is one of the reasons why this civilization is in grave peril.

The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us.

2. If you feel C.S. Lewis is a little too vanilla, try Malcolm Guite's exposition. Never again. He also understands Tolkein, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams like no other.

3. Roger Scruton talked at Theos last month, as usual making a number of penetrating remarks and comments. I particularly liked his distinction between sound and tone: science understands sound, but it has no purchase on tone - though the rise and fall, mood and intensity of a musical phrase is the very stuff of life for us.

Or his distinction between causes and reasons. Again, science understands causes but it has no purchase on reasons as a prompt to action, and yet most of the meaning we find in life is linked to this aspect of our agency. We lose touch with this dimension at our peril. And perhaps we are in peril...


Friday, July 18 2014

What kind of love do we need?

In this RSA series on reconceiving spirituality, we have explored what it might mean to 'take spirituality seriously', the role of the body in spiritual experience, what sense we can make of the soul in a scientific age, and the importance of reflecting on our mortality. Join us for the penultimate event in this series, when we examine an experience and ideal that many believe has to be at the heart of any reappraisal of the spiritual: Love.


Thursday, June 26 2014

London Philosophy Club event - Tom McLeish: 'Faith and Wisdom in Science'

Thursday 17th July, St George's Church, Bloomsbury

Book here!

"Do you have wisdom to count the clouds?" asks the voice of God from the whirlwind in the stunningly beautiful catalogue of nature-questions from the Old Testament Book of Job. Tom McLeish takes a scientist's reading of this ancient text as a centrepiece to make the case for science as a deeply human and ancient activity, embedded in some of the oldest stories told about human desire to understand the natural world.

Drawing on stories from the modern science of chaos and uncertainty alongside medieval, patristic, classical and Biblical sources, he challenges much of the current science and religion debate as operating with the wrong assumptions and in the wrong space. There are surprising consequences for our political troubles around technology and science.

Tom McLeish is a leading physicist and pro-vice-chancellor of research at Durham University. At Durham, he has organized fascinating cross-disciplinary projects including putting the cosmological models of medieval thinker Robert Grosseteste through the Durham 'cosmology machine' supercomputer.

Entry will be five pounds. There will be the opportunity to get a glass of wine before the event, and doors will be open at 6.30. There will also be an opportunity to buy Tom's book at a discount (not sure of exact cost but probably around £20). We will finish at roughly 9.30.

Book here!


Tuesday, June 24 2014

Let's talk about death

The RSA had the latest in its public discussions of issues related to spirituality last night, on death. Worth a watch, especially for the disturbance Will Self brings which is entirely appropriate to the subject.

It also struck me how woefully misunderstood traditional religious approaches to death are these days, as if Buddhism is mostly about being happy or Christianity just promises jam tomorrow.

Some of my take-home thoughts are below…

If we saw people dying and dead then perhaps mass entertainment of people dying and dead would seem less enticing. Will Self.

Christianity teaches dissolution and actualization as part of the same process, not unlike Buddhism. Will Self.

There is no such thing as life and death but rather deathlife like spacetime. Will Self.

Deathlife brings the dead back into play, not disappearing them beneath the waves, as secular culture tends too. Will Self.

The present moment is having its moment at the moment. Joanna Cook, thinking about mindfulness.

Thinking about my death moves death from a problem to be solved to a how to live life. You are already naked. Joanna Cook


Saturday, June 21 2014

The Spiritual Senses

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

We discuss the idea that alongside five empirical senses, we have a range of spiritual senses that respond to pattern, wholeness, the implicit, the good. They tend now to be collapsed into a vague 'intuition', though medieval and ancient thinkers explored how they could be used to investigate the world much as the empirical senses are relied on today.


Thursday, May 29 2014

God and Mindfulness - some more thoughts

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

We discuss the mindfulness phenomenon, which although partly a therapeutic movement seems akin to a spiritual revival as well. So what does the interest in mindfulness say about our times, how does it relate to past movements such as transcendental meditation, what can Christians and other theists make of mindfulness, and might it be a sign of a renewal in the quest for God - or even, God's quest for us?


Friday, May 23 2014

God and mindfulness

This piece is in the latest Church Times, out today…

We are in the midst of a spiritual revival. It has touched the lives possibly of millions. It keeps books in the Amazon top 20 for years. It's bigger than the Alpha Course. And yet, the church seems hardly to have noticed it, or at least responds with nervousness. It is the practice of mindfulness - a technique and a state of being that the Oxford psychologist and Anglican priest, Mark Williams, has defined as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity."

The latest sign was the launch this week, on 7th May, of an all party parliamentary group, supported by the Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of Oxford, Exeter and Bangor universities. Seventy or more MPs have undergone mindfulness training, and the aim is to help spread the practice into health, education, criminal justice and work. So might the established church now start to take more serious note and, if so, how?

There is the nervousness to overcome, the sense that Buddhism is spreading across the land under the guise of teaching useful skills (Features, Lent Series 2013). One way to address this issue is realise that the concept of mindfulness is, in a sense, biblical. When scholars first translated the Pali word "sati" they landed on the word "mindful" by borrowing from the psalms: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" The use there captures something of the power of attention - of God being intimately aware of us, and we of ourselves.

It is, therefore, truer to say that mindfulness is just one of a family of practices, now often forgotten, that have long been part of the Christian tradition too, practices that might include reciting the Jesus Prayer, sitting still, and contemplative communion with God. "The skill required is inner silence," Martin Laird explains in his excellent introduction, Into the Silent Land, because "It is the noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of our being."

It can also be helpful to draw a distinction between "problem-solving" and "spiritual" mindfulness, as Alex Gooch puts it in a new collection of essays, After Mindfulness edited by Manu Bazzano (Palgrave Macmillan). Problem-solving mindfulness is a technique that, for example, tackles addictions (Comment, 3 January). There is lots of evidence it helps. Spiritual mindfulness is different in that it addresses not only individual troubles, but questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine.

Why Christianity lost touch with its mindfulness traditions is a moot point. In his book, Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that western ecclesiastical authorities have long tended not to sanction silence as part of everyday Christian life because in Christendom, much of social and political importance rested on the beliefs of individuals being made public. Elizabeth I did not want to make windows into men's souls, but amongst leaders she is an exception. Western liturgies that to this day contain little or no silence is a byproduct. The worry about mindfulness as secret Buddhism might be another.

But like the many revivals of religious life across the centuries, of which Justin Welby is rightly making so much (News, 4 April), I suspect that the mindfulness movement can be seen as a spontaneous desire to recover this lost dimension of the spiritual life that contemporary Christianity is failing to provide.

That said, secular mindfulness teachers tend to steer clear of the s-word and it is theologically unlike, even opposed, to the Christian understanding of God, grace and salvation. Rather, it is presented as a method through which the individual might become skilled to save themselves from unnecessary suffering. But a closer look suggests that this might be only a surface difference and that mindfulness can be a route through which individuals rediscover the divine.

Consider this. A good mindfulness teacher will not try to sell the practice with promises of happiness or fixes for anxiety, though there is a lot of that around. (In this way, mindfulness is a step on from CBT that does offer techniques for directly managing troubling thoughts and feelings.) Rather, they will teach the profoundly counterintuitive insight that the effort in mindfulness training is, paradoxically, aimed at learning to do nothing. Do not strive to mend, but rather see more fundamentally what is going on inside; understand the machinations of the mind more clearly. Yearning to be happy or be free of psychic pain is, in fact, likely to compound the problem.

But why should someone trust this recommendation? What is the model of being human that lies behind it? It is that in spite of appearances, all is well. Creation is benign. Life can be trusted. Suffering certainly copiously exists but a stronger grace longs to be felt, if only we can ease up on our desperate self-holding and so know it in some silence. To put it another way, mindfulness is premised on the conviction that our worried egos and daily preoccupations veil the truth that our lives rest in a life that sustains and supports all things.

Again, mindfulness teachers will stick to secular language such as "training the observer" or "simply noticing". That's right, that's the practice. But why do that if letting go were letting go into a godless, heartless void? It seems to me that, in practice, mindfulness nurtures the experience of knowing the God "in whom we live and move and have our being".

I suspect that soon individuals will turn to the philosophical and theological questions mindfulness naturally raises, and about which the Christian tradition holds rich and compelling possibilities. Christians now might want to develop mindfulness groups, discuss it, above all practice it. Because if mindfulness is symptomatic of a spiritual revival then it is also a mission issue, in the sense of missio dei: God's work in the world with which the church is invited to join. To put it another way, in a secular age, mindfulness may prove to be a much needed experiential way back to belief in God.


Friday, May 2 2014

Transparent minds?

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

Are our minds transparent to others minds, as most cultures for most of human history seemed to have assumed, or is that a delusion and our minds exist solipsistically, receiving empirical data through an absolute barrier that prevents direct exchange or communication?


Wednesday, April 30 2014


There are still a few places left!

Enjoy a weekend of philosophy and food down at the Idler farmhouse on the North Devon coast.

Your hosts will be Idler Academy founders Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull, and your teacher will be philosopher Mark Vernon.

The weekend will start on Friday evening with welcoming cocktails, introductions, bread-baking class and a short talk from Tom before dinner.

On Saturday morning we’ll take classes in Ancient philosophy, where we will learn about the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the schools that followed. We’ll be placing great relevance on how their ideas are relevant today and to your own situation. After lunch there will be time for walks and naps. There will be a further class at 4pm on Saturday, followed by cocktails and dinner.

On Sunday morning Tom will give a sermon, followed by a seminar from Mark. After lunch there will the opportunity for another walk, followed by tea.

This is a real treat for mind and body.

Book here and get a discount! (Purchase the retreat as usual, and when the green strip which reads 'Got a coupon?' appears at the top of the page, type in 'Zeno'.


Saturday, April 19 2014

Introducing the new online Idler philosophy course!

We're very excited this week to have launched the new online ancient Greek philosophy course at the Idler Academy.

Do take a look for yourself!


Thursday, April 10 2014

What is Spirituality?

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

Spirituality is a word that whilst many people feel uncomfortable with, is one that nonetheless seems hard to put down. So what is spirituality, how can we talk about it, and what does it mean for what it is to be human?


Thursday, April 3 2014

What happened to the soul?

Iain McGilchrist talked to this theme at the RSA on Monday. Very much worth listening too!

Some Twitter highlights I made, if you want a quick digest:

Soul has a meaning because of instances in language when mind or heart or brain won't do. It's something bigger or deeper.

We don't have words for certain spiritual or soulful music. We need a word that's hard to define or we miss it.

Soul is more process than thing. Hence imagery of fire or spark. A latent function that needs nurturing. And suffering too?

Soul is resonant area. A disposition towards life. A way of knowing knowledge itself.

To understand soul need to put ourselves in the disposition to understand it. It won't just show up.

Shouldn't try to enoble soul by splitting from body. Instincts make substance of the soul. See soul in the eyes. So soul is not dualistic notion. The body is the best image of the soul, Wittgenstein remarked

Spirituality is often about not knowing because if you know too much, you miss it. Like time or beauty in that.

Soul is not going way of god of the gaps. Will always need appropriate modes of thought for different objects of thought

Soul is not ghost in the machine. Body is not machine. Plus soul & body may be aspects of one. Duality not same as dualism

McGilchrist on afterlife: perhaps we are like waves in water, or a part that's part of a whole. Our cognition is too small.

How to approach soul? Through depth, sublime, love, experience, the oblique, awareness of the ground of being.

Finally, for those engaged in 'Iain McGilchrist' studies, the talk was of note to me too because Iain quoted Platonic sources positively and without qualification (unlike in The Master and His Emissary, where to put it too crudely Plato is one of the 'bad guys'.) Afterwards, Iain did say he's changed his mind on Plato...


Monday, March 31 2014

Dream on...

The new edition of Third Way is out now, including a piece I've penned on dreams

Here's an infrequently heard, possibly risky-sounding proposition. Dreams are integral to our experience of God. They are not just pleasant, confusing, disturbing, and/or arresting nocturnal interruptions, of little meaning beyond weirdly echoing the fantasies and fears of our own unsettled psyches. Rather, they can convey insights and intimations, communications and knowledge of our relationship to the divine.

If that does sound spiritually off-piste, and I suspect it does outside of some charismatic circles, then our Christian forebears clearly thought differently. There are hundreds of references to dreams and dreaming in the Bible, from famous ones such as Jacob's ladder and the Magi's warning, to promises that life in the Spirit includes the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams. Abraham, Joseph, Samuel, Saul, Pilate's wife and Paul are amongst those stirred by significant dreams.

But a clear warning note is heard amongst these Biblical references. Joseph tells Pharaoh's officials that dream interpretation is "God's business". Jeremiah is particularly vexed by dreamers. "The prophets say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?... Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain? declares the Lord."

The caution is reflected amongst the early church fathers too. They felt dreams could be predictive and prophetic, though human beings are as readily deceived by them. Tertullian drew up an influential distinction between dreams emanating from God and those emanating from the Devil. Discernment of dreams was therefore crucial. A wrong interpretation could imperil your soul. Sexual dreams, for example, fell squarely into the latter category. When John Cassian came to write about the transformations of monastic life, one of his tests of a true conversion of heart was no longer having lustful dreams. They are involuntary, he reasoned, and so the monk who ceases to have them must truly now be living in God. But sexual content is only one indicator of whether a dream is to be trusted or not, and erotic fantasies are also distinguished by, of course, being easy to spot - unlike the many other seductive wiles of demons.

The worries of desert fathers and conservative bishops can appear anachronistic. But at heart, their insights are sound. Discernment is of the essence because whilst dreams are valuable, they are also routinely caught up in the conflicts and tensions of the dreamer's mind - one way in which today we might understand references to dreams originating with demons and the Devil. If you have a dream in which you appear as a divine figure, say, someone who is spiritually powerful or capable of transcending the laws of nature, this is probably about your own grandiose or omnipotent fantasies, not signs of a calling from God.

But the art of discernment has had a new lease of life in our times, which is one reason the place of dreams in spiritual life is due a revival. In short, twenty-first century dreamers can gain from two twentieth century innovations: developmental psychology and depth psychology. The first tells us more than has ever before been known about the difficulties of early life, and how they can play on into adult life. Dreams are one route to gaining enlightenment about how the years we don't remember remain active in our minds. The second, depth psychology, tells us about that part of ourselves of which we're not very conscious and yet which still constrains and limits, even determines, our habits and personalities, our experiences and hopes. Understand that better, and all sorts of untapped potentials might be released.

The twentieth century innovations were kicked off with the new "science" of dreams proposed by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He famously remarked that dreams are the "royal road to the unconscious" and in his best-selling book, The Interpretation of Dreams, announces that whilst dreams have confused and deluded countless generations, he now can reveal their secrets. Freud actually got the specifics wrong, most psychotherapists now agree. But his achievement was to put dreams firmly back on the maps that might guide us in life so that we can face our demons and, believers might add, be assisted in finding a path back to God.

Though now contested, it is helpful to begin with Freud because his ideas have seeped into the zeitgeist. He argues that dreams serve a purpose, that of helping us sleep: if a dream wakes you up, your dreaming has failed. He thought that we need dreams to sleep for much the same reason that we develop neurotic habits to help us through our waking hours. I worry about the whereabouts of my cats, or whether I locked the front door, or I play with my hands when sitting still, because those distractions are preferable to the deeper distress that they veil. If the true anguish of my struggles, which I've been engaged with from birth or perhaps before, were to impinge upon my day to day existence then life would become intolerable. To put it the other way round, when life does become unbearable because of anxiety or depression or other forms of mental ill-health, that is, in a sense, because my little ticks and worries have failed to hold things together.

Dreams attempt the same during the night. They try to keep buried the profoundly disturbing thoughts and feelings that tend to have more power during the dark hours, when we are less defended, more vulnerable. For the most part, they succeed. But when your sleep is routinely disturbed, or nightmares wake you with a start, it may be a sign that your hard won mechanisms of self-protection are becoming fragile or brittle. Such experiences might precipitate seeking help.

Freud thought that dreams then offer clues. The individual stories of disturbance they tell might be of use, because within the details of your dreams will be concealed patterns that reflect your unconscious trouble. One of Freud's famous dreams demonstrates how. It concerns a young widow, Irma. She was a patient of Freud and friend of the family. In Freud's dream, Irma attends a reception. Freud there reproaches her for not accepting his "solution", and she complains of pains in her throat, chest and stomach. Freud looks into her mouth and diagnoses an infection. He concludes that a colleague of his, Dr Otto, had given Irma an injection with a dirty syringe. Then Freud awoke.

He wrote many pages in his dream book analyzing the meaning of this fantasized encounter. He concluded that the dream represented a wish he had that Irma's complaints were not his responsibility, but could be passed to his colleague, Otto. This notion of dreams fulfilling wishes is the touchstone of Freud's theory. He felt that understanding a dream revealed secret desires or wishes that our conscious selves would prefer us not to have. One aim of psychoanalysis is to reverse engineer dreams and discover what they are attempting, but failing, to conceal.

His book is a fascinating read, hence entering the zeitgeist. The only trouble is that not many followers of Freud today go along with the wish-fulfillment idea. The big problem is that most dreams that wake us are clearly not of this kind. A traumatic dream, in which we repeat perhaps many times an experience of being attacked or of crashing, achieves the opposite: the wish is to forget the trauma and yet the dream persistently, painfully reminds us of it. An anxious dream, in which we find ourselves exposed in public or unable to run for the train, performs similarly. It prompts more apprehension, not less. So today, psychoanalysts are more likely to assume that dreams offer symbolic or narrative representations of whatever is troubling the patient. They capture a psychic disturbance or developmental deficit in a vivid, felt way.

Further, it is usually thought that different figures in the dream do not represent different people in real life but instead represent different aspects of the person having the dream. The dream uses individuals encountered during the day to stand in for qualities that belong to, or are sought by, the dreamer. You might dream of the man who was rude and abrupt as you left the supermarket yesterday because his behaviour chimed with a part of you that can be short and angry, but about which you'd prefer to forget. Your beautiful colleague with the comforting curves may feature in your dreams because you long, unawares, to be more in touch with a softer side of your rather independent and aloof public persona. The message is that next time you dream of an enemy taking a blow or worse, don't wake happy; examine yourself. Your projective powers are highly likely to eclipse any predictive capabilities.

The art of dream interpretation did not stop with Freud and his followers. Complementing them is another interpretative model, one that is increasingly influential today, and even more conducive to those with a theistic sensibility. It was first developed by Freud's erstwhile colleague, Carl Jung.

If, for Freud, dreams attempt at concealing, for Jung dreams are communications. Jung thought we dream, not in order to stay asleep, but because our conscious life lacks something. The dream conveys that lack, and we dream because the psyche has a potent capacity to try to heal itself. It is always struggling to do so. It wills to make us whole. For the spiritually-minded, Jung provides a dream model that allows us to understand both how our troubled past distorts our view of things now, and how the resources of our inner life might transform us by gradually expanding our personalities and developing our capacities in ways that currently elude, frighten, and/or seem impossible to us.

A first step is to recognise that the language of dreams is the language of symbols. The point about symbols is that they move us beyond the understanding of life that we might gain from empirical evidence or rational investigation. A biologist may look at an oak tree and see a member of the genus Quercus. But the mighty oak becomes a symbol when it conveys strength, rootedness and longevity too. Or I may catch sight of the sun. The astronomer sees an average star that is different only because it is close to us. But our star is also a symbol representing spiritual light, new life or radiant beauty - which must have been why the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun as Ra. Similarly, water, books, doors, running, mothers, lovers, crosses, spires - in fact, pretty much anything can become a symbol. To be human is, in a way, to be the creature who can look at the world and not fail to see all sorts of meanings and purposes imprinted upon that world.

Alongside sacred texts and thin places, rituals and poems, symbolization finds a natural home in our dreams. Their significance for us psychologically and spiritually rests on the fact that we have little consciously to do with their issue. They erupt from a place beyond our control. There's a kind of freedom in dreams that releases us from the strictures of self- and social monitoring, and may awaken us. They are like icons, windows into depth. So when the symbols of a dream are correctly discerned, and incorporated into conscious living, the result is not unlike the processes of prayer, conversion or healing.

Only, it is a complicated, often painstaking process, because the language of symbols is ultimately not reducible to the language of rational understanding. In fact, we need symbols and dreams precisely because our empirical capacities and reasoning are limited. Alone, they could not lead us to a living sense of God.

So how did Jung suggest we work with dream symbols so as not to be led astray? The key word is amplification. When he worked with his patient's dreams, he would elaborate on the symbols that they reported. But he did not interpret too quickly. The aim is to keep the dream alive in the individual's psyche, gradually unfolding its meaning to conscious awareness - a process that must be felt as well as understood. So he would encourage his patients to re-enter the dream, as it were, and allow all its feelings and images to come back to life. The dream could then be explored in a hynagogic state, an exercise he called active imagination. The therapists role is not only to help create the right mood or frame for this to take place, but also to contribute in a more objective way, by making timely suggestions, particularly on the basis of what the therapists knows about the meaning of symbols. Here's an example Jung offers in his chapter in the book, Man And His Symbols.

For instance, a patient of mine dreamed of a drunken and disheveled vulgar woman. In the dream, it seemed that this woman was his wife, though in real life his wife was totally different. On the surface, therefore, the dream was shockingly untrue, and the patient immediately rejected it as dream nonsense…

What then, was his unconscious trying to convey by such an obviously untrue statement? Clearly it somehow expressed the idea of a degenerate female who was closely connected with the dreamer’s life; but since the projection of this image on to his wife was unjustified and factually untrue, I had to look elsewhere before I found out what this repulsive image represented.

In the Middle Ages... it was said that “every man carries a woman within himself.” It is this female element in every male that I have called the “anima.” This “feminine” aspect is essentially a certain inferior kind of relatedness to the surroundings, and particularly to women, which (in men) is kept carefully concealed from others as well as from oneself…

That was the case with this particular patient: His female side was not nice. His dream was actually saying to him: “You are in some respects behaving like degenerate female,” and thus gave him an appropriate shock.

I like this example because it is so grounded. The man needed a shock from the unconscious if he was to integrate a part of himself that he was trying to expel, and in so doing caused him to behave like a lout. But Jung also introduces us to his notion of archetypes, the propensity that we collectively inherit to have shared kinds of fantasies and experiences in our inner lives - in this case, a man dreaming of his anima. Often when you read about archetypes they are enthusiastically presented as semi-divine figures within us, but as here, Jung himself tends to keep his feet on the ground. He shows quite clearly that most of the time such figures play a far more humdrum role: to highlight uneasy issues in our personalities - perhaps residues from specific difficulties in our lives; or tendencies that have become out of balance.

You might say that dreams can help free us from the entanglements of the past. But you might then also ask, if they help free us from that, then what do they free us for? This is where we come back to the role dreams might play in our intimations and knowledge of God. Through the miasma of our own confusions, amidst the detritus of inner lives, the divine may shine. A dream of Jung himself provides an example. It was one of the experiences he had that, later in his life, helped him return to a dynamic Christian faith, having become thoroughly disillusioned with the church in his youth. He describes this vivid, "waking dream" in his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

One night I awoke and saw, bathed in bright light at the foot of the bed, the figure of Christ on the Cross. It was not quite life-size, but extremely distinct; and I saw that his body was made of greenish gold. The vision was marvelously beautiful, and yet I was profoundly shaken by it.

The vividness and observation of being profoundly shaken is one indicator that this dream was about more than Jung's own psychic conflicts. When he had this dream, he had already spent much of his life working through them, and so whilst as a rule, waking visions might be treated with caution, he realised that this dream was not psychotic but carried a sense of the numinous. It was tapping collective archetypes to speak of the divine.

As he contemplated and amplified the dream, one important detail stood out: the greenish gold of the corpus. He knew that green gold had long symbolised the living quality of the cosmos, a life-spirit that animates all things. He interpreted this detail to mean that the dream showed that the symbol of Christ on the cross had come back to life for him. "If I had not been so struck by the greenish-gold, I would have been tempted to assume that something essential was missing from my 'Christian' view - in other words, that my traditional Christ-image was somehow inadequate." But from then on, the cross could speak to him not merely as a functional sign of Christianity but as an active intimation that points to "a darker meaning which eludes conceptual formulation and can only be vaguely apprehended," but which is felt to be spiritually crucial and alive.

It is this aid that dreams can perform for us. Pay attention to them, and they may breath a fresh vitality into our imaginations and traditions by reawakening the power of symbols. That power is subjective, and all the more valuable for that. Dreams can help us intimately to know that God is and is alive.


Sunday, March 23 2014

500 Year of Friendship

This series starts on BBC Radio 4 this week, and don't forget the additional material online, including this below from the introduction to my book The Meaning of Friendship...

What exactly is friendship? What is its nature, its rules, its promise? How can one differentiate between its many forms? How does it compare to, and mix with, the connections shared between lovers and within families? If at least a kind of friendship is elastic enough to survive the relational stresses and strains of our flexible ways of life, is that friendship also strong enough to bear the burden of the human need to belong, to be connected, to be loved?

These questions are trickier to answer than it might first seem because friendship is hugely diverse. Although it is relatively easy to come up with definitions that account for part of it, it is much harder to find one that does not exclude any of its facets. Aristotle, whose writing on friendship still sets the philosophical agenda to this day, found as much 2,500 years ago. Friendship, he proposed, is at the very least a relationship of goodwill between individuals who reciprocate that goodwill. A reasonable starter for ten. However, as soon as he tried to expand it, the definition seemed to unravel.

He looked around him and saw three broad groupings of relationships people called friendship. The first group are friends primarily because they are useful to each other – like the friendship between an employee and a boss, or a doctor and a patient, or a politician and an ally; they share goodwill because they get something out of the relationship. The second group are friends primarily because some pleasure is enjoyed by being together; it may be the football, the shopping, the gossip or sexual intimacy, but the friendship thrives insofar, and possibly only insofar, as the thing that gives the pleasure continues to exist between them. Aristotle noted that these first two groups are therefore like each other because if you take the utility or the pleasure away, then the chances are the friendship will fade.

This, though, is not true of the third group. These are people who love each other because of who they are in themselves. It may be their depth of character, their innate goodness, their intensity of passion or their simple joie de vivre, but once established on such a basis these friendships are ones that tend to last. Undoubtedly much will be given and much taken too but the friendship itself is independent of external factors and immensely more valuable than the friendships that fall into the first two groups.

The meaning of friendshipThat there are better or higher friendships – different people may call them soul friends, close or old friends, or best friends – as opposed to instrumental and casual friendships, or mere friendliness, is surely right. But to say that great friendship is defined solely by its goodwill seems to miss its essence. Goodwill exists in these best kinds of friendship, but, unlike the lesser types, best friendship – arguably the quintessential sort – is based on something far more profound. In other words, a definitional approach to friendship has its limits.

This ambiguity as to what friendship is reflects, then, the ambiguity that appears to be part and parcel of friendship in life. Try listing some of the friends you have – your partner, oldest friend, mates or girlfriends, one or two family members, work colleagues, neighbours, friends from online chat rooms, family friends, a boss perhaps, therapist, teacher, personal trainer – whoever you might at some time think of as a friend. A look at such a list puts your friends in front of you, as it were, and highlights the vast differences. For example, the friendship with your partner will in certain key respects be unlike that of your oldest friend, though you may be very close to both. Conversely, although friendship is for the most part a far less strong tie than say the connection to family, you may feel less close to members of your family in terms of friendship than others with whom you have no genetic or legal bond. Then again, lovers might make you blush and families can make you scream, but friendship – even soul friendship – is usually cool in comparison.

As you continue further down the list to the friends who are in many ways little more than acquaintances, associates or individuals for whom you have merely a sense of friendliness, it is obvious that friendship stretches from a love you could scarcely do without to an affection that you’d barely miss if it ended. Some people would say there is some minimal quality which means that it makes sense to call all of them friends perhaps Aristotle’s goodwill. Others would disagree: they are the sort who say they have a handful of friends and that others are people they only know. In other words, the ambiguity of friendship extends to the very possibility of prolific and profound friendship-making.

Personally, I think that Aristotle is on to something in his belief that the closest kind of friendship is only possible with a handful of individuals, such is the investment of time and self that it takes. ‘Host not many but host not none’, was his formula. He would argue that less is more and it is easy to substitute mere networking for the friendships it is supposed to yield. He actually went so far as to express a fear of having too many friends, ‘polyphilia’ as it might be called. There is an expression attributed to Aristotle that captures the concern: ‘Oh my friends, there is no friend.’

One of the things I think the philosophy of friendship tells us is that life produces personal relationships of many types, but out of these connections good friendship may or may not grow. Certain associations or institutions like work or marriage can foster friendship but those same associations or institutions need not necessarily be characterised by deep friendship themselves; friendship emerges, as it were, from below up. It is a fluid concept.

Another dimension to the ambiguity of friendship is its apparent open-endedness. Unlike institutions of belonging such as marriage which is supported and shaped by social norms, or work where individuals have contractually defined roles, friendship has no predetermined instructions for assembly or project for growth. People have to create their friendships mostly out of who they are, their interests and needs, without any universally applicable framework. On the one hand, this is a potential weakness, because a friendship may ‘go nowhere’ or ‘run out of steam’. On the other, it is a potential strength because there is also a freedom in this that is crucial to friendship’s appeal: it is part of the reason for the diversity within the family of relationships called friendship.

In summary, then, it seems that it is not possible to say unequivocally what friendship is. Sometimes it is intense, sometimes it is thin. Sometimes it appears to embrace many, sometimes only a few. This might seem to be a bit of a blow if the question is what is friendship. However, far from ambiguity automatically leading to philosophical impasse, an exploration of the very ambiguities of friendship is actually a very good way forward. After all, is not mistaking relationships for what they are not – that is being blind to their ambiguity – arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure? A married couple may assume they are friends in some deep sense when really they only have goodwill for each other because of the kids; unless they realise that, when the kids leave home, the marriage may falter too. An employee and a boss may think they are good friends after all the late nights, trips abroad and hours spent together: but when the day arrives for the appraisal or pay rise, and both turn out to be modest, the friendship stumbles and falls.

Honesty about any relationship is likely to improve it, even if the honest thing to do is not put too much hope in it! The mistakes that people can make in friendship are also exemplified in some of the things people commonly say about it. For example, many would say that the test of good friendship is being able to pick up immediately where you left off even if you haven’t seen the friend for some time. Aristotle, though, thought that good friendship depends on shared living and spending substantial, regular, quality time together. ‘Cut off the talk, and many a time you cut off the friendship,’ he said. The question is how much time, how much talk is needed?

And yet, if it is really quite easy to make mistakes by thinking the relationship is something other that what it is, the best kinds of friendship (however that is judged) are essential for a happy life: human beings need people they can call friends and not just people who are relatives, partners, acquaintances, colleagues or associates. In other words, the corollary of friendship’s ambiguity is that it is packed with promise and strewn with perils.

Philosophy is frequently overlooked as a resource for thinking through friendship in this way. This has much to do with the fact that only a relatively small number of philosophers have written on the subject at any length. What is more, those who have, although generally agreeing that friendship is essential for a happy life, also say that it provides no automatic satisfaction of human desires for deeper relationships or society’s need for connection. Friendship is ‘a problem worthy of a solution’, as Nietzsche gnomically put it. Or as Aristotle wrote: ‘The desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.’ The implication is that the best kinds of friendships are only possible between people who properly value it and who understand how many things from the personal to the political can compromise, undermine and destroy it. There is an art to friendship. Philosophy can teach us something about it.

This is an edited extract from the Introduction of The Meaning of Friendship by Mark Vernon (Palgrave Macmillan).


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