Freedom to be – on Iain McGilchrist and Rowan Williams

Iain McGilchrist and Rowan Williams were in dialogue on Friday 19th February 2021, a beautiful exchange that was sadly not recorded.

Here I offer some thoughts on it, particularly in the light of reflections offered by Matt Segall.

It concerns transcendence and immanence, being and becoming, eternity and processes in space and time – or to put it another way, the similarities and differences between the ontologies of Plato and AN Whitehead.

Matt’s reflections are online here –​

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Panpsychism – a conversation with Rupert Sheldrake

The discussion of alternative worldviews, from various forms of materialism to types of idealism, has exploded in recent years, and the notion of panpsychism is in the middle of the debate.

In this episode of the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon explore the different types of panpsychism being proposed, from more conservative forms that are linked to materialism, to older types that have been advocated by figures from AN Whitehead to Aristotle.

They ask about the place of time and space in different views of reality, and tease out the connections to consciousness and eternity. Models including emergence and information theory rise, as well as the role of the brain, as they wonder about the direction in which this rich conversation is heading.

For more dialogues between Rupert and Mark see:​​

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Identity Crisis – on culture wars and the spiritual self

My column from The Idler, Nov/Dec 2020.

Cancel culture or keep culture? Where do you stand? Third positions seem excluded when it comes to these intense disputes, which inflame public debates over everything from gender identity to national history.

Only, there are alternative responses, and an important option is found in wisdom traditions. Ancient philosophers wrote about it, and it has been explored by modern figures as diverse as Virginia Woolf and William Blake, too.

It starts from the premise that all identities are necessary failures. Male or female, gay or straight, black or white, and so on: they are all attempts to secure a place in the world, drawing on anything from biological particularities to historic suffering and inner yearnings. As such, they are worth respecting. They mean much to people and matter within certain domains, such as the medical, the psychological, the social.

However, it’s a mistake to idolise them, as if any specific description of a human being could be the defining feature of who they are. Life can’t be contained by these identities, for all that they may shape it. It’s why Hamlet can affirm that the human individual is both “infinite in faculty” and “quintessence of dust”. Trying definitively to nail down who you are, is like trying to nail down water.

Wisdom traditions understand this recalcitrant excess as an unavoidable part of being a human person. Further, they positively affirm it because it points to a deep truth: every human being’s fullest identity lies elsewhere. It’s in the dynamic ground of life itself, which is variously referred to as God or Brahman, Buddhist emptiness or the Tao’s dance that moves between the different aspects of ourselves; across the corporeal, the intersubjective, the spiritual.

Attempts to capture this true self in words vary hugely, of course, to the extent that phrases like “true self” are also rejected as mistaken or inadequate. Socrates picked up on this difficulty. In fact, he made it central to his philosophy. He realised that his wisdom rested not on what he knew for sure but on the fact that he could know nothing for sure, particularly when it came to himself.

It sounds like a curse, more like embracing darkness than light. But it is a blessing. Not knowing who you are means you are always open to more. If you can tolerate the enigmatic nature of reality, and how everything you say about yourself is provisional, then you find yourself in a position continually to draw on the felt source or generous wellspring of life’s ceaseless vitality.

This matters because life goes well when resourced by the underground spring and, conversely, things go wrong when it gets cut off. It’s why the culture wars tend to bind more than liberate: anxiety about correctness traps us in smaller lives.

Virginia Woolf reflected on such dynamics in her essay, A Room Of One’s Own. She noticed how watching two people meet on the corner of a street, a man and a woman, had the effect of easing her mind. It was as if previously she had been in some kind of strain. That strain, she muses, must arise from having to hold inflexible distinctions, in this case to do with differences between the sexes. It’s important to do so in some circumstances, even crucial. Woolf wrote about it in the same essay. But doing so takes effort because, ultimately, it interferes with an underlying unity, with which the sight of the two people meeting had resonated.

She argues that such unity is perceived by the “androgynous mind”. This is a type of awareness that moves beyond personae and categories, becoming “resonant and porous” insofar as it doesn’t need to make the world witness to its suffering and yearning, troubles and difficulties. She had the realisation that there’s more to being human and, when in touch with that more, the mind is free to range across increasing circles of experience with less and less impediment. It’s what a room of her own would enable her to develop. I think she was seeking the same wellspring of life as Socrates.

William Blake was onto the struggle to gain this perspective as well. He called it the “wars of love”, which are not primarily fought with others but when we battle with ourselves. These conflicts embrace “Self-Annihilating”, which for Blake, living before Freud, did not refer to routing the ego, but rather eroding the desire to control others, limit ourselves and possess life. Wars of love are a mental fight from which he will not cease, to cite his well-known phrase.

The experience can feel unwanted, ruthless, ferocious. In his epic poem, Jerusalem, he describes Albion embarking on wars of love by throwing himself voluntarily into Los’ fiery furnaces. But the heat is the judgement born of love, not condemnation. The result is an individual who understands the wisdom of Blake’s quatrain:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as It flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

The sceptic may say that eternity’s sunrise is all very well, but what about justice, truth, rights? An answer is to engage the cultural and spiritual simultaneously.

The cultural is the issue at hand, with all its urgency and heat. The spiritual is the developing awareness that all identifications with this or that sense of self, whilst necessary in one way are, in another, constraints. They risk cutting us off from a remarkable characteristic of human awareness: it can transcend itself. It can observe what’s happening whilst it’s happening, and realise that position as itself a state of mind. It reveals what the wisdom traditions call the dance, the emptiness, the divine.

This awareness is not just an optional extra. I think it’s what truly great civil rights leaders possessed, enabling them to become more than just one side of the struggle, as catalysts for real transformation.

What is often forgotten today is that human beings can be ever more richly resourced by the unexpected wellsprings to which the wars of love and the androgynous mind lead us. They reveal a part of us that is more than ourselves and more than this world, though also, at once, our transcendent home and the fullest source of our identity.

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Some thoughts on love

This article is on Perspectiva’s website…

Many stories have been told about love, exploring the way it works, the way it pains, its delight and promise. It is a confusing subject, at once a self-evidently “good thing”, perhaps the most important capacity possessed by human beings, and simultaneously a confusing feeling, which can lead people astray as well as direct them aright.

It is a matter to which developmental psychology has turned, producing ideas such as attachment theory, and I think the significance of this still relatively new understanding of love is, as yet, not fully appreciated. The new science tells the story of love as it emerges across the course of a human life. It also suggests a source of love attested to by wisdom traditions across many ages. But before coming to that, consider first the development of love in our lives.

Continue reading…

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Dante, awakening, and erotic love

Dante’s journey is all about erotic love, through ugly possessiveness, and powerful passions, to the realisation that love is usually experienced as an ignorance about what we desire, to which he awakens.

The Divine Comedy is, therefore, a crucial resource for understanding this energy that surges through us. The poem is rare in the western Christian tradition in embracing eros, not trying to cajole or chasten it.

Love leads Dante to the truth that was there all along, and calls to us as well, speaking of the being, consciousness and bliss that is the ground of reality, known when perceived aright.

To follow the Divine Comedy, canto by canto, try my podcast/YouTube series.

My book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide For The Spiritual Journey (Angelico Press) is forthcoming.

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Light – a conversation with Rupert Sheldrake

We naturally talk about seeking the light at the end of the tunnel, or hoping to be enlightened. But are such phrases that reference light more than metaphors?

In this episode of the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon explore how light is both physical and spiritual, and note the remarkable harmony between scientific and mythical ways of exploring light.

They ask about the links between light and intelligence, as discussed by figures from Plato to Dante, as well as how our inner lives, say when we dream, include light. Rupert reflects on his time in the ashram of Bede Griffiths, and Mark recalls remarks made by Roger Penrose.

It turns out that the way we talk about the experience of light is hugely suggestive of the nature of reality. There are good reasons light is so closely associated with the divine.

For more dialogues between Rupert and Mark see:


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Preview of my new Dante book!

In case you’d not heard, 2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, author of the great Divine Comedy.

My book, which is a guide for the spiritual journey presented as a narrative retelling and interpretation, will be published in September 2021, in time for the actual date.

To have a sneak read of the introduction, and sign up for notice of its publication, have a look here!

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Dante 2021 – Top 10 Spiritual Insights

We will learn a lot about Dante’s language, love, politics and humanism in 2021, the 700th anniversary of his death. But perhaps not so much about the spiritual insights he felt charged by heaven to communicate in his Divine Comedy.

My top 10 spiritual insights are:
10. Comedy transcends, not excludes tragedy
9. Morality gets you nowhere, insight leads everywhere
8. Descent and ascent are the same path
7. Life is not a hero’s journey but a lover’s journey
6. Light is intelligent
5. Intelligence is a kind of resonance
4. Unity is diverse, not singular
3. There is a Christianity beyond Christianity
2. Freedom is about saying yes to life, not choice
1. The greatest question to ask: who I am?

To follow the Divine Comedy, canto by canto, try my podcast/YouTube series.

My book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide For The Spiritual Journey (Angelico Press) will be out in time of the 700th anniversary on Sept 13th.

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Could 2021 offer more than healing?

Reverting to normal is a missed spiritual opportunity

Landscape in the snow, Vincent van Gogh

As 2020 ends and 2021 begins, people are talking of healing. There is a strong desire to recover from the suffering of the year and return, as speedily as possible, to normal life.

The yearning is right, and the remarkably speedily development of vaccines promises to make it possible. The pain of Covid, and the suffering precipitated by lockdowns, must be eased.

And yet, there is a part of me that is wary of framing 2021 solely in terms of recovery and relief.

The assumption behind returning to normal is that, first, the pandemic is abnormal and, second, that normal life is the best life. But the pandemic is only abnormal in the sense that it is suffered widely and doubly felt in countries not used to having everyday life disrupted. The truth is that disruption is a part of life, not an unfortunate intrusion. Some face disarray often, others infrequently enough to live as if it doesn’t occur — until it does.

The upshot, paradoxically, is that the desire simply to recover is implicitly a wish to return to life as a closed circle of pain and pleasure, advance and setback, laughs and losses. It’s a broadly hedonist philosophy, meant in the strict sense of wanting to maximise pleasures and minimise pains, and begs the question of whether there’s more to life than weighing it in the balance, and hoping it tips more to the good; that happiness mitigates hurt.

To put it another way, there is a kind of spiritual opportunity cost in an unthinking reversion, a missed chance in circling back. But there is a hard element here.

You share the feeling of being with another soul.

Any realisation that there might be more to long for from life may well arise with suffering. This is not to advocate suffering by perversely arguing it is good. It is to ask that since there is, has, and will be suffering, whether it might be possible to learn something from it?

The question arises not as an attempt to escape from suffering but precisely because it is bad, sometimes too bad. It is at least difficult, if not terrible, because suffering is never only physical, but also existential: it underlines that we want more from life than simply to live out our allotted span. We want to love as well as survive, enjoy as well as endure, find meaning as well as relief.

This more can be felt in a related experience much named in 2020: empathy. It means that when you meet another person, you don’t just register a body or hear a voice. You share the feeling of being with another soul. The physical presence in front of you is only the visible appearance of an invisible spirit. A living body projects way more than its bare life, which is why the sight of a dead body can be so discomforting and uncanny.

Empathy is a modern word, coined in 1904, for an ancient perception: that my consciousness and your consciousness is one consciousness. When you say “I” and I say “I” we are reaching towards a unity of being that sustains us all. Another way of putting that is to say we are ensouled.

The strange thing about suffering is that it can intensify this perception of life as well. When suffering, we feel keenly how life is valuable. We know it is felt and soulful, not merely instinctive and mechanical.

Great individuals trust this more of life.

I suspect that the capacity to detect this soulful connection has much to do with how we relate to ourselves as living souls. The person who is inclined to interpret their feelings as rushes of hormones, or neuronal spasms, may hinder or thwart their ability to feel the spiritual presence of others. If you don’t trust your inner life, it’s hard to trust the inner life of those around you. As William Blake put it: “As a man is, so he sees.”

Similarly, if you don’t trust the inner life of the natural world, it will be harder to believe that William Wordsworth was doing more than dreaming when he associated the light of the setting sun with a spirit that rolls through all things.

It’s also why death is a great challenge. The living body of the beloved goes and those remaining have to rely on the now invisible presence of the one who has passed. This is a real loss to incarnate spirits, whose usual means of communication is shared and embodied. The death of someone with whom physical companionship has been a mainstay may, at first, prove intolerable. Your living body loses part of itself when the body of your beloved goes, which is to say your soul is bereft.

Mourning is the hard task of becoming capable, once more, of relating to the person who has died. They are no longer manifest in the world, though they can become present afresh in inner life. Memories linger, to which can be added an ongoing sense of life shared, not as a fantasy that they are always with you, but as an experience that as your life goes on developing, so does theirs — more often apart than together, though with love still exchanged.

An experience of suffering can prompt a desire to know more.

Great individuals trust this more of life and, knowing they are more, see more. In fact, the great innovations in wisdom traditions tend to come when this seeing links to suffering, fostering more to be contemplated. Socrates embraced doubt. Buddha saw people dying. Jesus walked into the wilderness. Such figures realised that suffering can open gateways. They did not want the suffering, or wish it on others, but they learnt to lean into it when it came their way, and to be imaginatively open to it. They found that the capacity to do so increased their freedom, because it reoriented life away from weighing pleasure and pain in the balance, or trying to hold suffering indefinitely at bay, to perceiving that suffering is one indicator that life is worth more than the hedonic calculator can compute.

All this also means that suffering should be eased when it can’t be understood. A child’s pain is the obvious case in point. But for some individuals, and perhaps for a society as a whole, an experience of suffering can prompt a desire to know more: to realign towards life’s soulful foundations, to reconnect with the dead, to forge habits of mind that nurture spiritual as well as material perceptions; to turn towards the being upon which all beings rest.

In this sense, I hope we don’t just return to normal. I am trying not to, feeling that the events of 2020 make 2021 a chance to be more imaginative. The new year might lead into a new world, though, in truth, it is only a lost aspect of the one that is here.

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The Meaning of Soul

Pixar’s film wittily subverts the wisdom of our age

Pixar’s great film, Inside Out, was a touching tale about inner conflicts. Coco took as its theme the destructive presence of the unresolved past. Now, Soul combines a near death experience with the ennui of modern life to tell a story that brilliantly subverts many self-help nostrums. It fearlessly brings together the metaphysical and the mundane, to reveal the glory shared by both.

Joe Gardner (spoiler alert, though I’m discussing themes, not plot) is a music teacher. One day, he unexpectedly secures a big break and becomes so elated that he stops looking where he’s going, falls down a manhole, and enters a coma deep enough to detach his soul from his body.

Like all good myths, the whole meaning of the story hides within the roughest outline of its plot, which the filmmakers take the rest of their sparkling movie to unpack.

For much of it, Joe is in the Great Before, having leapt from the stairway that leads to the Great Beyond. He does not want to go heaven, as he is not ready to die.

Knowing who you really are means knowing your true name.

The Great Before is an eternal zone in which souls prepare for life on earth. It is not quite a bardo state, as Buddhists depict the realms between lives. Nor is it being held in the mind of God, which is how the Christian imaginary sometimes talks of life before birth, although the pre-existence of the soul is a controversial matter in the religious west. Preaching about it used to be heretical, and today might prompt a boycott from conservative Christian groups.

In Pixar’s account, the unborn souls in the Great Before are young and forming. They are receiving character and spark, which they need to be able to make a stab at life on earth. They attend “You Seminars”, although interestingly, they don’t have names, and instead are known by numbers.

They are tended by entities who have a focus and drive like angels, though they are less individual than the angels that Dante, say, encounters in paradise. “I am the coming together of all the quantised fields of the universe, appearing in a form your feeble human mind can comprehend”, says one of them to Joe, adding that it answers to the shared, generic name, Gerry.

It’s one of many witty moments, which has wit in the older sense too, of being wise: the detail about namelessness is, I think, an early clue as to the deeper message of the movie. Knowing who you really are means knowing your true name, and the souls don’t yet know it.

Joe has spent his life pursuing the dream of a breakthrough in the music business. He loves jazz and has assumed that when he plays, he manifests his passion and gift, and so becomes himself. His goal is to make his name, which is another widespread view of life’s meaning.

Lost souls are not that different from those in the zone.

It might be called “finding your thing”, or putting in 10,000 hours, ideally so as to become well-regarded, if not famous. Should that not happen, then there is always the consolation of peak experiences or a personal sense of purpose; a life organised around your heart’s desire, or of enjoying flow states.

However, Joe starts to realise that these goals are illusory. For example, he meets Moonwind from “Mystics Without Borders”, a group that works across reality’s divisions, including heaven and earth, and Moonwind tells him a shocking thing. “Lost souls are not that different from those in the zone,” he remarks about flow states. “The zone is enjoyable but when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”

In other words, positive experiences can detach you from life as effectively as negative ones: the pursuit of happiness can disorientate as thoroughly as existential pain. Being disconnected from life, alongside being unsure about your name, will turn out to be two sides of the same problem.

A further nostrum about the meaning of life is falsified when Joe learns that having a gift doesn’t deliver purpose either. To say more about that would reveal too much of the plot, though by this stage in the story, a further truth is starting to shine through. To cut to the chase, what matters is education, in the broadest possible sense.
This is not about gaining qualifications, or even cultivating joys like music. It is about remembering who you are.

Life is not a linear ascent up a slope of progress.

It occurs simultaneously at two levels. First, Joe starts to realise how he is appreciated by his family, friends, and pupils. Remembering their kindnesses, and recognising the love, is invaluable, though if that were the main takeaway from the movie, it would make the story worthy, but sentimental. And Joe discovers much more than that.

The richer education that he had missed, even in his pursuit of music, is what the ancient Greeks called paideia. It is an education that takes the stuff out of which you are made, received from nature or nurture — or indeed from any transpersonal inheritance instilled before this life — and fashions it into the means by which to enjoy communion with others, nature, and the gods.

It is an education of desire that transforms the yearning for more into a recollection of the tremendousness of existence. It is an education of the mind, showing how life is not a linear ascent up a slope of progress, but is a return to a presence that is available moment by moment. It is an education in the type of knowledge that isn’t driven by competitive goals or technological innovation, but by a love of contemplation. It understands that the task of this life is polishing the soul’s mirror to enable its inner microcosm to reflect the macrocosm of heaven and earth.

The meaning of music is transformed too.

Joe learns that his near death experience enables him to value life, his plunge into darkness to see light, his anxiety to appreciate love. He becomes educated in the qualities of the present moment, the power of now, if you will. A sycamore seed can fall from the sky and be known as radiant with divine light.

Although it is not put like this in the film, I reckon he can be said to learn his true name: it is “I”, the distinctiveness felt in the phrase, “I am Joe”, of which he can be aware regardless of any breakthroughs, or abilities, or peak moments. It’s his true name because it is both his and everyone else’s: Joe’s particularity is the means by which he participates in the whole of life, without reserve.

The meaning of music is transformed too. He no longer yearns for the perfect jazz solo, fostered by a combination of opportunity, skill and flow. That is too transient a goal to deliver lasting satisfaction. Rather, music is understood to enable what C.S. Lewis called “transposition”. It exists in between worlds — the physical world of acoustics and the aesthetic world of harmony — and so transmits a sense of reality in which life is known in all its fullness. This is music’s soul: it is a form of cosmogenesis, which is to say that it is not about making more stuff, but is about amplifying and extending what is good, beautiful and true, to those who have the eyes to see and ears to hear it.

This world is a school at which we learn to experience divine life.

The ancient Greeks put music at the centre of their paideia, alongside rites and pilgrimages, debates and feasts. They called it the work of the gods, or theurgia, because it can become the core around which a life is orientated. The heart of the work is a kind of remembering awareness, of your true name, of your connection with life, and of your destiny, the soul of which shines in any and every moment.

Soul addresses another fascinating issue, over which the ancients disagreed, namely the nature of the material world. Some, such as groups of Gnostics, believed that it was corrupted. They argued that the soul did not descend fully into the body, or that if it did, it became trapped in heavy flesh. Others, such as most early Christians and Platonists, argued that the soul did descend fully into the body, and that this world, which is also wonderfully ensouled, is a school in which we learn to experience divine life. Salvation comes when the sacred patterns of the natural world are discerned, as opposed to arriving with a saviour who rescues us from fallen nature, as the doctrine of original sin suggests.

Joe discovers that he has everything he needs, regardless of life’s peaks and troughs. He only has to want like a god, and perceive the world aright. It is in the present that the confusions of the soul are clarified. It is in the present that he can recall who he truly is.

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