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Monday, June 8 2015

What would it be like to meet St Paul?

I'm off on Friday helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself will be blogging here. Here's a pre-departure post from me…

What would it have been like to meet Paul as he travelled around Greece? What might he have looked like? Would the encounter have been memorable? We can never know for sure, of course, but speculating is possible. And the hints and suggestions about his appearance and character are surprisingly revealing of the man we seek to follow on pilgrimage.

Luke makes several references to Paul that suggest the writer of Acts likened Paul to a Cynic philosopher. The Cynics were the shock-jocks of the ancient world. They felt that human problems arise from blindly following conventions: you can be free, said their founder Diogenes, if you live like a dog (hence their name, as "cynic" probably comes from the Greek for dog).

When you need a bed, curl up in the sun. When you need some food, nature will provide. Don't worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have worries enough for itself. Actually, Jesus said that, of course - though Jesus too has been likened to the Cynics by some New Testament scholarship.

If it seems a bit farfetched to think that Luke used Cynic sources to imagine Paul, consider this portrait of the ideal philosopher, recorded by his near-contemporary, Epictetus.

The ideal philosopher is unmarried, and recommends the single life, so as not to distract from the "service of God", Epictetus said. He follows his conscience rather than political or religious authority. He is kind-hearted to the extent of taking on the troubles and physical hardships of others. He can expect to be "beaten like an ass", though he must love those who beat him. He is an "enslaved leader", responsible only to God, not the masses. His friends and followers will be equally dedicated to his calling. He will be free, regarding God's will as better than his own. He will be despised and praised, desired and derided, a slave unto death.

Remind you of anyone? This is the man, Paul, whom we follow.

If that speaks of an awkward yet compelling character, what of his actual looks? They too might have been unsettling yet alluring. The iconographic tradition suggests that Paul was thin in the face, had a dark beard, large eyes, a monobrow, bandy legs, and was strong but short of stature. In fact, the name "Paul" may be a pun on the Greek for "short".

According to the scholar Abraham Malherbe, many of these features seem to pick up on another ancient Greek image, that of the hero, Heracles. So what might be the link between Paul and Heracles?

Well, there is a strong association between the hero and Paul's hometown, Tarsus. It was an important place in Asia Minor: the Greek historian, Strabo, said it rivaled Alexandria and Athens in cultural significance. You might imagine that Paul, travelling through Greece, would have played up his links with Tarsus. They might impress, or at least get him a hearing. So too the link with Heracles might have stuck in the remembrance of his appearance.

But there is a deeper association with Heracles. In the myth, Heracles is remembered for his great labours. So too Paul, in Acts and in his own letters. And further, Heracles' labours included visiting the underworld, which is to say that in some sense, Heracles was thought to have conquered death.

Here we get to the heart of Paul's message as he travelled around Greece. His gospel is one of dying and rising, of being buried and reborn. New life, alongside the acceptance of struggle and suffering, is his driving agenda. Might this be the God-orientated man we seek to follow on pilgrimage? He's not for the fainthearted, with his inner authority, tough kindness, arresting features, cultured background, and life-promising message. I, for one, yearn to know more.

Thursday, October 10 2013

Why the church needs therapy

I've a piece on the links between psychotherapy and spirituality in the October issue of Third Way. Here's a clip or two:

... Jung noticed that, of his patients in the second half of life, there was not one whose problem was not at base in some sense religious . The spiritual systems that had offered individuals frames of reference which generated meaning and purpose were breaking down. Modern individuals had spontaneously embarked upon a new search for soul, because human beings can do no other, though it is a chaotic process that often precipitates psychological pain and problems. Much is at stake, nothing less than the breakdown of society, Jung feared. Therefore, he argued, clergy and therapists must join forces to meet the precipitous spiritual challenge of our times.

Why does each need the other? The church needs depth psychology because people do not generally experience life in theological terms anymore. On the whole, they no longer feel redeemed by the death of Christ as the medieval individual did when gazing up at the broken body on the rood screen. The notion of sin has ceased to describe a deathly state of being as the first readers of Luther and Calvin must have felt inside themselves. So when the modern church speaks in terms of its old formularies and creeds, deployed without psychological insight, it comes across as dogmatic: at best, anachronistic; at worst, irrelevant. It is an insight Pope Francis seems to have recognised when, during his recent trip to Brazil, he spoke of the church as cold, caught up in itself, and 'a prisoner of its own rigid formularies'.

Then, depth psychology needs the spiritual dimension too because whilst, since Freud, there have evolved rich ways of understanding the origins of psychological distress based upon traumas in the early years of life, there has been less development when it comes to understanding how suffering is linked to spiritual advance across the life course of an individual. Psychotherapy can look back, but struggles to peer forward. This is where spiritual traditions come into their own.

To use the language of the Christian tradition, it is through suffering that new life is found. Good Friday comes before Easter Sunday. Spiritual traditions hold out the hope that suffering can become a means to a transfigured end because the experience exposes the individual or group - painfully but powerfully - to sources of connection, possibility and fulfillment that were previously beyond conception. Call it salvation, enlightenment, release, returning to God...

... One way of describing psychotherapy is as a relationship that enables the individual to see more of themselves or of the groups to which they belong, not least church groups. It is a kind of awakening; becoming more conscious of hidden tendencies and compulsions that are typically barely felt on the everyday level and yet will, over time, shape and constrain character, choices and worldview. The psychologist and priest, Fraser Watts, talks of the abundance that this 'joining up' allows . 'Renewal involves being integrated, integrating what's on the surface with what's inside.' It is a theme that Jesus often referred to in his teaching, Watts continues. He seems to have been the kind of person who would meet a rich man, say, and spot that even though the chap kept every article of the law, it was an inner and personally defining attachment to riches that kept him from God.

Importantly, psychotherapy does not primarily aim to fix or heal such conflicts. Like Jesus with the rich man, it aims instead clearly to point them out. This is the issue of trying to solve problems from within the purview of what is problematic: such solutions inadvertently tend to exacerbate the issue. The relationship between a therapist and client is used to bring tensions to light, to explore and understand them in a felt way. Then, in time, they lessen their hold on the individual. He or she comes to see more of the impact of the forces at play in themselves and, thereby, is liberated from them. Something new becomes possible...

... In practice, this preparation for spiritual growth may happen in broadly two ways. There are those for whom life is constrained for reasons of profound damage or trauma. The slow, steady work of therapy - probably of different types, medical, behavioural and psychological - offers the hope of shifts and change. More commonly, the second way that therapy helps is with tackling the everyday defenses that everyone has to some degree. They don't stop the person functioning but they do limit who they might become. (You might say that the church as a whole falls into this camp.) Problems are often revealed in those emotional responses that are the opposite of the fruits of the spirit - moments of hatred, grumpiness, fear, impatience, unkindness, obfuscation, indecision, hardness of heart and excess. The question, then, is how to nurture the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

A clue is in the way Paul describes such virtues, as fruits. They are not capacities that can be willed. As Paul also noted, for all that he wanted it to be otherwise, he continued to do what he wouldn't do, and not do what he would - which in psychodynamic language is to say that he was influenced by his unconscious. Rather, the fruits are capacities that emerge as the individual or church is transformed. That is the source of renewal, and it is the practical details of this transformation process that western Christianity seems to lose sight of in the modern world, and with which psychotherapy can aid. In effect, the therapist says, you are forgiven for your hatred, greed and jealousy. Now we are free to explore the extent of such feelings in you, and why they have taken hold. As the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott put it, it is only when an individual knows about their 'vast reservoirs of unconscious hate' that they can also know they are loved, and so not be so ruled by their hate - or fear or anger. An older religious way of putting it would be to talk of being convicted of your sin, and then knowing the full extent of God's forgiveness. But this is the kind of language that does not quite work for most today. The psychodynamic notion of acceptance and exploration, though, might make more sense...

Thursday, February 14 2013

God of love?

This is a slightly longer version of the article that has gone up at the Guardian's Cif belief...

Religious and spiritual sorts tend to bang on about love. God is love, some say. Practice the art of loving-kindness, others commend. And I've found it hard to know what sense to make of these sentiments. They can so easily lose weight and meaning in a thousand repetitions. Or there is the claim that love reveals and is the fundamental truth of reality. What can be made of that in a scientific age?

Then, I started to read up on developmental psychology, whilst writing a book about love. It seems to me that the modern science illuminates the older, religious claims.

Psychologists and psychotherapists as diverse as Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott seem to say that we learn about love in roughly three stages. Our first love is narcissistic - not an entirely pleasant thought, though behaving as if we were the only creature of importance in the world is necessary for our early survival. Freud talked of His Majesty the Baby.

Neonates are lovable and tyrannical. Winnicott showed that the good-enough parent is not perfect but is capable of being devoted to their child, especially in the early weeks. The aim is to instill a feeling that life can be trusted because, on the whole, it delivers what the child needs, physically and emotionally. A sense of wellbeing grows in the young body. It provides the basis for the kind of self-love that enables you to get over yourself and feel comfortable in your own skin. The myth of Narcissus conveys a similar insight. The problem the beautiful youth had was not that he loved himself too much, but that he couldn't love himself.

Narcissism might be called the love of one, and love between two follows next. It is a step into the unknown. It's frightening to awaken to the realization that you are dependent upon another - a parent, in the child's case; a partner, in the adult equivalent: romantic love. But the upside is that life expands. To be one of two promises deeper delights and wider horizons than narcissism can embrace.

There is an assumption that dyadic love, also called falling in love, is the pinnacle of lovely experiences. But it is only the midpoint of the story according to developmental psychology. The next step comes with a secure enough attachment, as Bowlby put it. Equipped with such trust, the child is able to explore the world - to take tentative steps away from the cosy twosome.

It can enter what has usefully been called a triangular space. There's me, there's Mum or Dad, and now there's something else - a third dimension known in the reality of siblings, friends, interests, goals, a current of life that runs independently of me, though I'm somehow part of it. Again, taking that step is alarming, possibly traumatic. However, if negotiated OK, life becomes richer again, and more risky, and the individual's perception of reality grows.

So what does this have to do with God and love? Well, first, consider Plato. He argued that love has an epistemological dimension because of the way it draws our perceptions up a ladder of illumination. We find ourselves on one rung, lower down, and spend some time steadying ourselves with the view. Then, having gained our balance, we are inclined to look up. There's another rung, and an urge to step up. It is an unsettling, possibly frightening, experience. It is more comfortable to stay where you are. But with the right support, another view is gained.

The process can repeat itself, Plato proposed, until a moment is reached when the view that appears is nothing less than a beatific vision. It is as if we have momentarily taken in all that life and reality are. Plato called it the beautiful and the true. Believers call it God. The point is that love resources the ascent. It is a dynamic view of love that is remarkably commensurate with developmental psychology.

A second way of thinking about this dynamic is more simply put. At each transition - from one to two, from two to the triangular space - the individual realizes is that love was already there waiting for him or her. Narcissistic self-absorption relaxes with the realization that I am held in the love of another. Lovers move from falling in love to standing in love, to recalled Erich Fromm's phrase.

The life of faith detects that there is a fourth dimension to add to this third, a divine love that is there waiting. It holds all because it is the source of the love that flows through all. Fear and uncertainty do not cease. Human love always feels a bit like that. But faith is the felt sense that love can be trusted because love is, in truth, the ground of reality.

Sunday, August 19 2012

Rowan Williams and Francis Spufford on being a Christian

This piece on two new books, plus one not quite so new, has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

What is it like to be a Christian? Not what do Christians believe or how many superstitions do they quietly excuse before breakfast? But what is faith as experienced?

It is an important question because, as Rowan Williams notes in his new book, The Lion's World, people might think they know what faith is about when, today, they perhaps don't, never having been there. Subtitled "A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia", the book is partly about CS Lewis. But it is also a chance for the archbishop of Canterbury to convey what Christianity means to him. This is difficult to do, not only because contemporary Britons lack Christian experience but because, as titular head of the established Church of England, Williams recognises a need to "rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything".

The elusory character of Christianity is also on the mind of Francis Spufford, the historian and science writer. The subtitle for his new book, Unapologetic, is "Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense". A central worry for him is not that the rational justification for belief has been undone. Faith is not about that anyway: as Coleridge noted, the best argument for Christianity is that "it fits the human heart". Rather, it is that so many of the secular alternatives to Christianity only work because they "depend on some tacky fantasy about ourselves". They are in flight from what is truly difficult about life; what is hardest to stomach about ourselves. Take John Lennon's anthem Imagine, which had such a prominent place in the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Spufford labels the lyrics the "My Little Pony of philosophical statements", with its monstrously deluded assumption that the default state of human beings – psychological, cultural and social – is one of peace.

Instead, Spufford likens the experience of being a Christian to listening to the adagio of Mozart's clarinet concerto. This "very patient piece of music" has been described as conveying the sound of mercy because its quiet beauty does not deny the horrors of life but admits they exist and yet insists there is more too. It is as if, running through the mess, there is an infinite kindness, or gentle forbearance, or what Dante called a love that moves the sun and stars. Reason cannot decide whether that is true. The feelings that deliver closer, insider knowledge of human experience can.

Williams reflects extensively on the nature of mercy as well. He portrays it as an unsentimental though humane experience, again because it means facing up to the truth about what you have done and who you are. The theistic insight is that this truth can only be seen when you are confronted by the divine. To meet God – or Aslan, as Lewis has it in the Narnia stories – is "to meet someone who, because he has freely created you and wants for you nothing but your good, your flourishing, is free to see you as you are and to reflect that seeing back to you".

In other words, to see yourself as others see you might be discomforting but it will also always be skewed by the distorting lens of their self-interest. To be unmasked as God sees you is painful because purgative, but is also a path to true liberation. It is merciful because without it we are left in a citadel of self-deception, life's energies being sapped and wasted on bolstering self-regard.

None of this proves the existence of God in the way a science would demand because its evidence arises from the inner lives of individuals. It does, though, reflect a strand in the philosophical discussion of God, often forgotten today. Pascal drew attention to the problem God has in revealing himself to creatures he has made to be free, because if God were to offer irrefutable evidence then that would force a relationship of coercion, not love. God's solution, Pascal proposed, is to "appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and [to remain] hidden from those who shun him".

The philosopher Paul Moser calls the demand for such proof "spectator evidence" in his more academic recent book, The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Re-examined. And being a spectator of life will not take you into life or reveal the ground of life to you. It separates the individual from both. Rather – and as Williams and Spufford stress – what is required is a transformation of the individual, akin to the transformation that occurs when someone falls in love. It happens not because there is a hardening of the evidence but because there is an unhardening of the heart, softened in relationship. Only then might we see as we are seen.

Friday, April 20 2012

Why religion is good for you

I have this feature in The Tablet this week.

Fundamentalism, fanaticism, fights. Headlines in the press often cast religion in a bad light. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise; all in all, the practices of faith tend to have positive effects on people’s lives.

The impact has been assessed across a number of metrics. For example, the likelihood that an individual will drink excessively or take drugs decreases significantly if they go to church, temple or mosque. Among Americans – where religiosity has been extensively studied – being actively religious means you are less likely to commit crime, get divorced, commit suicide or suffer from depression. You will probably also be healthier and live longer.

The upbeat message sounds clearly in posi­tive psychology too, the discipline known as the science of happiness. Martin Seligman, the US psychologist who has put positive psychology on the map, argues that lasting levels of happiness can be influenced by changing your life. “Becoming religious” is in his top five things to do. These results are echoed by the economist, Professor Richard Layard, who advised the last Labour Government on well-being. In his 2005 book, Happiness: lessons from a new science, he presented evidence that having no faith had a more detrimental impact on happiness than losing a job, though not quite as bad as being widowed.

It reads as if the science was designed for advertising God. But the evidence becomes more complicated when a further, crucial question is asked. Just why is it that religion has positive effects? A range of possibilities are mooted, and hotly contested.

A first possibility assigns efficacy to the proscriptive character of religion. World faiths carry moral weight, which is to say that they encourage, if not insist, that faithful adherents do not do things like take drugs, commit crimes and practice infidelity.It is certainly the case that commandments, in the form of “thou shalt not”, are important. They set a tone, help sustain attitudes. But, as any honest believer will testify, commandments are often honoured in the breach. So the question needs to be asked: how it is that proscriptions ­actually work, in so far as they do?

The story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous is illuminating. In 1931, the psychologist Carl Jung was trying to treat an alcoholic, though Roland H’s craving for drink remained stubbornly strong. Then Jung had an idea. He recommended that Roland attend the meetings of an evangelical Christian movement which stressed submission to God. It worked. Roland had a conversion experience, which Jung interpreted as releasing a new source of energy from his patient’s unconscious, one more powerful than the desire to drink. Roland related the experience to another apparently hopeless alcoholic, Bill W, and it worked for him too. He founded AA, which today has more than two million members in 150 countries.

Research on the effectiveness of the 12-step AA programme is disputed. But it seems undeniable that the recognition of a “higher power” was crucial to the success it has had. In other words, proscriptions work not when they are perceived as persecutory commandments but rather when they are perceived as charting a path to a new way of life.

Speaking personally, I have a friend who regularly attends AA meetings, though he is not a churchgoer. But the language of conversion makes eminent sense to him. He pointed me to the literature of Narcotics Anonymous, which expresses it well. “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority: a loving God as he may express himself in our group conscience.” And yet, this only points to another knotty issue in the debate. It has to do with the significance of groups.

An alternative possibility to prohibitions being the secret of religion’s success is that individual well-being is boosted by the social support provided in groups – and not just religious groups, but family groups, common interest groups or therapeutic groups. Could the group aspect be what helps people at AA meetings and benefits people who go to church? As the psychologist Oliver James recently noted in The Guardian: “It is … plausible that the comradeship and feeling of belonging supplied by religious peers are a substitute for the buzz you get from substances.” James conceded, however, that social support does not provide an adequate explan­ation. He cited a large-scale study that tracked the lives of thousands of Americans and concluded that community was not a substantial mediator of inner strength.

There are other possibilities. Richard Layard has suggested that the benefits of religion have little to do with prohibitions or sociality but, rather, the issue is emotional habits. He argues that religious practices train individuals to control their feelings.

In his book on happiness, Professor Layard discussed The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, noting how the saint sought to nurture several attitudes that modern science has demonstrated are essential for well-being. Ignatius urged his readers to praise God, that is, to learn to be grateful. He believed that humankind was made to serve God, which had the effect of dissolving egoism by drawing attention away from yourself. As Layard also pointed out, Ignatius argued that salvation involves being indifferent to what happens to you, so while everyone has times of desolation, it is also the case that such experiences tend to pass. This too can help, by building resilience.

Resilience is a theme that interests Eric Greitens, an American humanitarian and social entrepreneur currently researching the virtue. Early indications of his work suggest that individuals who demonstrate resilience in the face of life’s difficulties cannot simply bounce back because their harsh experiences become part of them. Instead, they are able to live with the distress in such a way that they can ascribe meaning to it. The experiences do not demean them, but deepen their sense of being human.

Again, this is an attitude embedded in spiritual traditions. Julian of Norwich lived through the Black Death, one of the most devastating plagues in history, and yet she was still able to write, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Many of the researchers in the positive psychology field are searching for ways of reformulating such religious attitudes for a secular age. They exhibit a desire to raid religious traditions for their wisdom, while removing the theological scaffolding that has traditionally supported them. One of the most articulate recent attempts is found in the latest book by philosopher Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, published earlier this year. In it, he agrees with the positive psychologists that religious practices provide useful techniques for everything from building humane communities to tending attitudes of kindness.

But reading de Botton’s book crystallised in my mind something crucial about religion that is overlooked. It will come as no surprise to believers that this something has to do with God. Positive psychology is characterised by its instrumentality. Alain de Botton puts it explicitly: “Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” What he misses, is that religions are good at building community and nurturing kindness because, paradoxically, they do not aim directly to do either. Rather, they aim to open adherents to that source of life, or spiritual sustenance, that is expansive of our humanity. They offer practices that, over time, transform the soul. It is variously called salvation, eternal life or enlightenment.

Goodwill and well-being may follow. They also may not. But when they do, they are happy by-products of the main task, which is not actually to have a successful life. It is to come to know God. The spiritual dimension has instrumental effects; but without the vertical striving, religious virtues come to feel empty. To whom are you expressing gratitude for life if not God? The blind mechanisms of evolution? Or, it might be noted that you do not become religious in order to be happy, and if you tried to do so the strategy would fail you.

It is striking that atheistic writers and researchers are coming to a new appreciation of religion. Going are the days when faith could simply be written off. Nonetheless, I suspect that their ideas will flounder because a basic and obvious question is being avoided, though as Oliver James remarked, it is one “no researchers have ever posited”. Might human well-being actually have something to do with God?

Saturday, November 19 2011

The art of compassion

I've this piece on the Guardian's Cif Belief asking about compassion, and tying in with The School of Life's compassion sermon tomorrow...

Compassion is like happiness. Obviously a great good. And yet, I think it is also like happiness in another way. Its realisation is far more tricky than perhaps first meets the eye. A number of thoughts came to mind as I tried to think it through.

Take the business of practising compassion. One can clearly will oneself to do a kindness here, offer a comforting word there. A fraction of the world would be a better place for it. But a concern came to my mind that reaching out might become like the injunction to eat five pieces of fruit'n'veg a day. It becomes a burden, one that you chastise yourself for not fulfilling. Your efforts to show compassion to others become a regular reprimand to yourself.

There is also the danger of tokenism. One act of compassion is used, perhaps unconsciously, to alleviate the guilt of the many quietly abusive acts that can fill an average working day. Or, do I visit my uncle in the care home because I care for him or because I feel secret remorse for his being there in the first place?

This is all counterproductive, if you follow Gandhi's line of thought that you must be the change that you want to see in the world. So I have the sense that being compassionate towards others requires being compassionate towards yourself too: serious intent, light touch.

To develop the thought further, you might say that the aficionados of compassion possess a certain freedom with themselves. I think this is shown in the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road from the man who has been beaten by robbers, though there is no suggestion in the story that they are not compassionate people. Rather, they are constrained by their fear of a half-dead man. And who can blame them? A half-dead toddler, Wang Yue, was recently passed by on the streets of Guangdong by over a dozen people, provoking a moral crisis in China and concern around the world. What the Good Samaritan had was an inner freedom that trumped any fear. He wasn't tied by convention, or fright, or lack of time. He was free to respond to another human being. Am I that free?

The risks associated with being kind are, in fact, multiple. Will an unexpected act be unwelcome or aggressive? Might it be thought an intrusion or demeaning? Can you judge accurately whether it's appropriate? Am I free enough to take these risks? Also, there's an art to receiving acts of compassion: you mustn't read too much into a warm smile or the squeeze of a hand!

There are interesting parallels between these concerns and the research on empathy. Empathy too is often taken to be an unalloyed good thing. And yet, as Colin Frith, emeritus professor at UCL, recently told me, an empathic feeling might as easily lead to an unkind response of fight or flight as a good response of compassion. Feeling viscerally upset by someone else's pain might make you turn your back. Alternatively, collective empathy with my in-group can lead to collective animosity towards those perceived as others. Such empathy powers war. The risk is that my compassion for some leads to self-righteous anger at others.

All that said, compassion has to start somewhere. And to a certain extent it seems possible to train oneself by attempting to form habits of reaching out. Perhaps the best advice is to aim high but start small. For it seems to me that compassion is really aimed at something big and difficult – nothing less than a transformation of your life and yourself. A good question to ask is whether you really want that to happen.

Thursday, August 18 2011

Beyond me

I've a piece on Western Buddhism in the September issue of the magazine Third Way, just out:

Buddhism is for everyone. It presents no doctrinal hurdles for the religiously wary because it is a path based upon a practice, not a creed. It demands no submission to authority, for it vests no pope or cleric with spiritual power. It is unburdened by the long history of war and atrocity that stains Christianity in Europe. Above all, it addresses modern everyday concerns – the desire for happiness, the anxieties of stress. Indeed, policy makers are growing increasingly interested in the ability of mindfulness meditation to achieve everything from reducing aggression to warding off aging.

It is a genius piece of spiritual positioning in a secular culture, like ours, that associates belief with half-forgotten myths, at best. Psychology, not theology, is trusted as a source of truth. The individual, not the divine, is what really draws our attention. And I have to admit, as someone who entirely understands what it is to be metaphysically agnostic, Buddhism drew me too, for a while.

But I’ve changed my mind. I’m inclined to think that Buddhism’s easy ride into western consciousness should be challenged. A moment for critique has arrived – a moment that, I suspect, serious Buddhists will, in fact, welcome. Conversely, Buddhism’s undoubted appeal raises questions that Christians would do well to reflect on too. So for what it’s worth, what changed for me?

A seminal moment came whilst on retreat. I’d been attending meditation classes for some time and had tasted the benefit. A regular habit of sitting and paying attention to my breath, or walking slowly and concentrating on the sensations in my feet, served well to anchor the day. The inner maelstrom did not cease. But becoming aware of it meant that I was, perhaps, not so automatically driven by its preoccupations. Deeper concerns had more of a chance to surface.

Now it was time to be exposed to a longer period of meditation. I selected a centre that was serious in its discipline and relatively free of esoteric clutter, and signed up. There are 24 hours a day. We were to dedicate 8 of them to meditation.

It was a good experience insofar as it went. But I became increasingly struck by how myself and my fellow retreatants placed one concern above all others: ourselves. We were there to attend to our own wellbeing. The practice was presented as a kind of self-administered therapy for the soul. There was an occasional ‘metta’ meditation, to develop an attitude of loving-kindness towards others. But the task was basically to observe yourself, and that set up a dynamic with which I grew increasingly uncomfortable – one of self-absorption and self-obsession.

It was very different from a Christian retreat. Long periods of silence will feature then too. But whereas a Buddhist retreat is focused on yourself, a Christian retreat is focused on the pursuit of God. Much to my surprise, I ended the hours in the mediation hall with a powerful sense that a focus on the divine might actually be more healthy. But then the obvious thought struck: how is that possible for the contemporary agnostic who has genuine concerns about whether such theism is true?

Oddly, this is less of a problem than might first be thought. What I mean received unexpected illustration when, a few weeks later, I was watching television. The programme was The Big Silence, a remarkable piece of reality TV. Five individuals were plunged into an alien experience, namely an 8-day silent retreat. The three-part series charted the ups and owns of this journey into their hinterlands. And the experience of one of the participants, John, stood out.

We meet him in episode one as not only not religious but really rather against religion, on account of it being the source of so many ills in the world. A few days into the retreat, during episode two, he has discovered the power of silence and a spiritual dimension that before he would have regarded as insane. Then, in episode three, he muses on his experience in a series of remarks that I found very moving. ‘At one point, to be honest with you, I thought I was going mad,’ he reflects. ‘That voice was in me. I was listening to something deep in me, but yet it wasn’t me. It was just remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. And I know I’ve gotta trust it, just got to trust it.’

Now, I may be doing John a disservice, but I don’t suppose he had read the Confessions of Saint Augustine. And yet, his description of ‘that voice’ seems directly to mirror how Augustine described what happens when he finally finds God. Augustine comes to realise that God was always within him, for all that his own introspection had not known it. But God is also not himself – ‘deep in me, but yet it wasn’t me,’ he writes.

John and Augustine embark on a journey inward that is also a journey outward. They become more present to themselves as an awareness of the divine presence grows. Augustine’s meditation is not just a monitoring of the ups and downs of his own singular psyche, though he did much of that: ‘I labour at hard material, Lord,’ he remarks, ‘And I am that material.’ Rather, his psychological exploration is also a theological discovery. ‘You made us tilted towards you, and our heart is unstable until stabilized in you,’ he writes in the Confessions (as Garry Wills translates it in his new book, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography).

This stabilization was revealed to John too. The experience begins with an unsettling experience of the flux of interiority and then opens up, dramatically, onto the divine. This kind of meditation is simultaneously about the individual and God.

That it leads to a sense of stability discovered in relationship should not be so surprising, as it’s the essence of human relationships too. In friendship, for example, we recognise ourselves not just as participants in lives shared with others, but further, as recognising who we are in others. We are part of a life way bigger than our own. ‘We need each other in order to be anybody,’ wrote the philosopher Bernard Williams.

Coming back to my mindfulness experience, the Buddhist would say that concluding that meditation is an exercise in self-obsession is misplaced. What I’d missed is what Buddhism teaches. The instability of the self experienced in meditation is a reflection of the doctrine of anatta, or no-self. (There are doctrines, you see.)

No-self is a complex concept, variously read. Some Buddhists interpret it as saying that the notion that we have a self is a delusion because everything is dependent upon everything else and so is in a state of constant, transient flux. Others will say that the goal of meditation is an emptying of the self, a kind of ‘blowing out’, as a literal translation of the word ‘nirvana’ implies. No-self is sometimes expressed by likening being a person to being a cart. A cart is comprised of axles, wheels, a carriage, springs. So the cart, it is concluded, is just the assembly of those elements, nothing more in itself.

This kind of analysis of the self appears to gain support from neuroscience. I recently heard one neuroscientist using the analogy of a smart phone to deconstruct selfhood. Much as a smart phone contains applications that together make the phone smart, the argument went, the brain contains ‘evolution’s apps’ - an empathy app, a language app, a sex app. Together, they make a person, but personhood of itself is nothing more than the sum of those apps.

However both analogies are flawed because, I suspect, the psychology is flawed too. A smart phone is not smart by virtue of its applications. It’s smart because of the individuals who use it in smart ways. In fact, the analogy re-enforces the importance of selfhood. (It only works the other way if you forget that computers are, in fact, thoroughly stupid.) Similarly, the elements in a cart only add up to a cart because there are people to drive it. You actually need a concept of personhood to understand the concept of ‘cart’.

So something quite subtle has happened to the doctrine of no-self as it has appeared in the west. It substitutes one extreme for another: it replaces the self-sufficient, autonomous ego that has tended to dominate our conceptions of the self since the Enlightenment with an empty or deluded self. Then, in meditation, Buddhism offers a therapy that tackles the hyper-individualism of today by stressing the instability and dissolution of the self. Only, it seems to me that is not true. Whilst it may be very hard to say what an ‘I’ is – and it is surely multiple and porous – it is foolish to rush to concluding there’s no ‘I’ at all. It is less reactionary, surely, to rest with the notion that we are something of a mystery to ourselves – a mystery deepened in meditative analysis, not dissolved in it. As Augustine put it: ‘Our mind cannot be understood, even by itself, because it is made in God’s image.’ Stability is found in God.

The growing appeal of western Buddhism highlights a massive issue for contemporary Christianity, at least in the UK. Theism has stopped speaking to many people. Christianity’s symbols and voice, its understanding of the divine and what it is to be human, have not been refuted, just increasingly ignored. It’s a predicament observed by Carl Jung, who died 50 years ago this year. Human individuals are in spiritual crisis today, he wrote, because they are in search of themselves and their soul. He also noted that psychology has emerged over precisely the same timeframe as Christianity has declined, for the reason that though religion has ceased to speak to people, those same people still need a means to understand themselves. That is why western Buddhism is clever when it presents itself as a practical psychology free of beliefs.

However, there is a critique to be made. Western Buddhism offers a model of the self that is, in fact, complicit with modern individualism. Christianity, though, can claim to be radically different. Its discovery is that we are who we are in relationship, with others and with God. To be human is to be the creature for whom our own existence is too small for us. That, it seems to me, is both true and avoids the narcissism and the nihilism with which western Buddhism flirts.

Thursday, July 21 2011

Acts of kindness

Michael Landy, famous for destroying everything he owned, is now gathering stories of kindness on the Central Line. Part of Art on the Underground, the record of incidents are posted online and at stations. I enjoyed talking with him about it last night.

It's a subject that we've discussed here from time to time - how you need to be free to be kind, how it runs risks with the unwelcome and unexpected, how it values fleeting gratuity. The discussion also raised the art of receiving kindnesses, as much as offering them: you mustn't read too much into a warm smile or squeeze of the hand!

Some research threw up ideas new to me too.

John Stuart Mill was wary of promoting kindness. He saw it in the context of the emancipation of women, arguing that they need to be autonomous, like men. Kindness as a public virtue undermines that by keeping women in the position of being kind to, that is serving, men. It will be interesting to see whether there are gender trends in the stories Michael gathers. Is it still a predominantly feminine virtue? Is it still seen as objectionable because of undermining self-reliance?

I was interested too in how we tend to think of kindness as a feeling, aligned to empathy, whereas the virtue to which it is related, caritas or loving-kindness, is more like adopting a stance towards the world. It originates in the will, not the emotions. It's a kind of moral strength: a person might develop habits of kindness. It's perhaps for this reason that kindness can provoke sneering, even violence: is the 'crime' of the saint anything more than that they were kind?