Easter And The End Of Christianity

If Coronavirus turns Christian leaders into exemplary citizens, the gospel is lost

Will Covid-19 change our way of life, our politics, maybe even our civilisation? Personally, I doubt it. Business and political leaders are already charting a course back to familiar waters.

But Eastertime is a festival of novelty. It celebrates spiritual liberation not social success; eternal life not the prolongation of this life. It offers a different take. So, for a season, whether or not this world changes can be a secondary concern.

Let that go, and a fresh light dawns. It’s possible to realise that the effort to find happiness, the guilt at living wastefully, the frustration of powerlessness, brings us to our wits end. And that’s good. It’s a chance for something else. Visionaries have called it eternal life.

The insight is shared by great wisdom traditions alongside Christianity. But it’s become harder to see and trust nowadays because, in my view, those who might preserve the hope of it no longer have sight of it, in large part.

Preaching futility

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon this year is indicative. (Justin Welby gave advance warning of it on social media during Holy Week.) “We cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal. There needs to be a resurrection of our common life,” he proclaimed, adding, “We have faith in life before death.”

The message sounds commendable, the words of a civic leader fulfilling his responsibilities. But it’s quietly disastrous. It turns bishops into exemplary citizens, not heralds of another country that’s already here.

It’s fairly futile, too. The archbishop feels he must inject hope into the Coronavirus crisis. As the pendulum of fear swings up, he believes the Christian task is to push it back the other way. But, of course, the upshot is that the pendulum keeps swinging. The dread of death that has become so horribly evident in recent weeks is perpetuated. The unconscious message is that there may be no way out. No wonder his gospel wanes.

What’s forgotten is that Jesus did not preach a better life, but the eruption of spiritual life, upon which humdrum existence depends anyway. He’s remembered as promising that what he knew of divine life would be known by others, too.

In fact, he said others would know it more so, were they to follow him and not adulate him. This is the end, as in aim, of the gospel he taught.

Eternity now

It’s the awareness of eternal life now. This is not about having hope for the future because there is no future in eternity. There is no past either. Instead, it’s the level of reality at which everything is always new, always verdant, always realised.

When Dante travels through the Inferno, in the Divine Comedy, he realises that one of the things that keeps souls in hell is their preoccupation with the past and the future. It distracts them from the present, which is the moment of change because it’s the only moment that’s real. And what a brilliantly light reality it turns out to be.

It comes like a thief in the night, Jesus remarked. It takes a cut with a subtle knife, an awakening, a release, a crack through which the light comes. It’s when the doors of perception are cleansed and everything is seen as it is: “infinite”, celebrated William Blake.

Only by daring to sense the truth of these perceptions is it possible to make sense of other things that Jesus said. “Be perfect!” “Take up your cross!” “Let the dead bury the dead!” “I came to bring a sword!” “Gouge out your offending eye!” “Sell your possessions!” “Hate your parents!”

Jesus’s injunctions are utterly incomprehensible to the gospel of amelioration, and probably offensive. They only begin to make sense when seen as attempts to catapult you into a different kind of life altogether.

Death is the path

That said, the really revolutionary part of Christianity is more disturbing still, though again, it is an insight shared with other great traditions. It says not that resurrection can inspire the masses, bring consolation or comfort, prove Jesus saves or that there’s an afterlife.
Rather, it’s that death is itself the path to life. Jesus, along with other geniuses like Socrates, realised that it’s only when death is encountered that it becomes possible to see it as a pivotal moment in life.

Death insists that we let go of what we’ve grasped and understood, because this is the crucial step to realising there’s much more that is always reliably there. It’s an awareness, perceived with intuitive eyes; a step into the timeless.

Death is the right word because, as the adepts also report, the paradox is that doing nothing and braving everything is the moment spiritual life reveals itself. In Daoism it’s called wu wei, in Buddhism emptiness, in Christianity the cross. It’s not inactivity or quietism. It is the hard task of giving up getting, and instead letting.

In psychotherapy, you see how the struggle to reach this point may take years and then, one day, it begins to happen. I think the awakening works like this because it’s only when you’ve seen who you are that the ego’s grip eases. Seeing is understanding, and that leaves you much less in thrall to your neuroses and delusions. They may or may not go, but they are deposed. As the teacher Jack Kornfield puts it, “You’ve got to be a someone before you can be a no-one.”

More life

It’s the release of death that those on their deathbeds report. It’s the realisation described by those who undergo Near Death Experiences, such as Elizabeth Krohn who was one day struck by lightning. “As I hovered over my body, I suddenly got it,” she writes in Changed In A Flash, a book that’s particularly interesting because it’s co-authored with the psychologist of religion, Jeffrey Kripal.

“I went from ‘Shit, my shoes are ruined’ to ‘I was so wrong about so much.’ It was an understanding that came to me instantly, suddenly, shockingly. I looked at my body on the ground and knew that whatever had just happened to me had given me an insight that the woman lying there could never have grasped on her own, even seconds earlier.”

Death is the gateway to more life. It’s a truth that shapes much of life in nature, from the seed dying to the summer turning, as well as in us, psychologically. Many people feel they don’t grow up until their parents die, because then they can take life and make something of it. Alternatively, it’s why life’s transitions are so poignant, from the child’s first day at school to the adult’s last day at work. They are little deaths. They enable further steps in life.

Death’s sting

Sleeping and waking echo dying and rising, too. I wonder how often insomnia is linked to a fear of death. But if you get used to the idea that many moments of most days follow that pattern, then death as the end of bodily life loses its charge and sting. It’s happened myriad times already.

“The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now,” explained Meister Eckhart. He also realised that “My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”

The Coronavirus crisis may or may not prompt societies to change. It may or may not avert further disasters. I hope it does. But for now, there’s another hope to see. Our humanity is a road to divinity. It’s a road less travelled these days, but remains to be discovered.

So, Happy Easter! And I’ll give the last word to Jesus, in a typically punchy summary. “The one who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Posted in Blog

Inferno – discussion invite

I’m proposing to have a discussion about Dante’s Inferno on Saturday 11th April at 5pm BST.

If that’s of interest, do email me, mail@markvernon.com, and I’ll get back to you.

Posted in Blog

Zoom fear and Skype fatigue

What we lose in online meetings and how to survive them.

Zoom drinks and Skype dinners were fun at first. And essential. Office life now revolves around online meetings.

But as the coronavirus crisis lengthens, and the lockdown extends from days to weeks or more, what might we lose to virtual communication?

At one level, that’s easily answered. For we humans, the meeting of bodies as well as minds clearly matters. We’re sensing, breathing organisms whose bodies actively and intelligently respond to what’s going on, in more ways than we can imagine. We aren’t machines. Feelings matter as much as functions. Skin doesn’t only contain pulsating organs but rippling emotions too.

We think with our hands, see with our stomachs, touch with our hearts. “I can hear people smile,” David Blunkett once remarked.

The science of sensing calls it “cross-modal linking”, which is to say that communication is embodied. But during the Covid-19 outbreak, when people will suffer from social distancing, it’s worth teasing out the ways in which communication is embodied. Then, we can prepare ourselves for the losses of this time, consider some remedies, and be better able to cope.

Sights and scents

First, some good news. Cyberspace is an embodied environment too. Moreover, neuroscience suggests that the magic of mirror neurons mean we experience virtuality in ways that often match the way we experience physicality. In both cases, the same neural pathways may activate.

However, virtual embodiment is also different. Your body is in the room with you. An image is not. It’s floating elsewhere, like the reflection in a mirror. It’s also probably 2-D not 3-D, as well as being stripped of its smells. That may seem like a detail until you read about how anosmia can make people feel lonely, as well as well as leaving them longing for a sniff of scent.

There is also evidence that during gatherings in cyberspace, our experience of sight and sound works differently. It becomes hierarchically organised. For example, if an individual decides to see as well as hear their online interlocutor, they will still mostly focus on the audio during an exchange. The visual element becomes a place holder, like the carrier wave of a radio transmission. It’s less a primary source of information and something is lost.

These differences begin to show up as the days go by. An early realisation is that speaking online is tiring. This is because you have to work harder to stay in touch with a person down the line. You have to capture what’s said, rather than resonating with it across the rainbow spectrum of experience. Subtler frequencies are harder to pick up.

One result is that limited meeting times are suggested. The aim is to mitigate Zoom and Skype fatigue.

Cognitive science offers another take on the exhaustion. It’s to do with how we select from the signals that bombard us and screen out the ones to ignore. The ability is called relevancy testing. It’s a skill that is carried out unconsciously with access to a rich array of indicators from physical reality, which may be compromised when the environment is denuded, as it is online. That makes it harder to tune in and easier to become distracted.

Research on brain lateralisation is illuminating too. The right hemisphere is more open-minded than the left hemisphere, neuroscientists have shown. It enjoys an intuitive, imaginative take on the world, whereas its companion prefers focus and specifics. Further, the right hemisphere is far more connected to the body via neural pathways. It draws on the body for its breadth.

So, if you take the body away, the right hemisphere may have less to go on, and an individual may suffer tunnel-vision or find it harder to understand. The intuition that some decisions can only be made in person is right.

Feeling held

A different dimension of the loss concerns the role the body plays in our earliest communications, as infants. Sigmund Freud observed that the first ego is the body ego. He meant that the body alone provided our earliest sense of I-ness in the world. It’s in the body that we first gain a sense of who we are.

Watch a parent and child and you see it immediately. Touch and gaze provide rich channels of exchange. The youngster explores itself in another’s eyes and finds security in another’s arms.
These are the “primitive” emotions, as psychotherapists call them, meaning the ones that bed down inside us when we are young, all being well. When present, they generate security and resource a sense of being understood. They support the conviction that communication is worthwhile and life can be trusted.

Conversely, when communication becomes disembodied, hidden insecurities may start to creep in. Having to repeat yourself may precipitate frustration. Being unable to match the rhythms of another and so feel in sync can generate anxiety. Did I say it right? Did I cause offense? Did I misunderstand?

If you notice yourself thinking you might skip the next meeting, or not bother to call back, it may be because factors like this are at play.

Disembodiment can also be intense. Rather than feeling seen or heard, the screen can precipitate the sense of being watched, looked at, or scrutinised. Again, early experience illuminates the difficulty. Babies will often turn their heads away from a parent when they feel overstimulated or overwhelmed. They know how to give themselves a break, whilst keeping the parent in peripheral view. They want to feel the presence of the other and have space. That’s harder to do down the barrel of a screen.

Remedies

In summary, the move to online gatherings may throw up much, particularly when it lasts for some time. But they are part of life now, so the question arises: how to live well with them?
There are at least three steps to help navigate the enforced, if necessary, adoption of meeting technology.

First, name that it’s different. Saying that you are not sure how virtual gatherings will work gives people permission not to have to pretend it’s business as usual. It also creates the chance to share what’s unexpected and, possibly, not wanted. That can be embraced with less anxiety.

Second, reflect for yourself. How do you find online meetings? What do you enjoy and dislike? The point is that Skype and Zoom test people’s psychology. The digital atmosphere is thinner and some find it harder to breath.

Which suggests a third tip. Ensure that you’re receiving plenty of embodied experiences elsewhere. In particular, this means going outside. That’s where nature’s broadband is. Daylight, soundscapes, breezes, smells. This is the total immersion, cross-modal living that the body adores. So, after the meeting plug in your phone, but also plug in your life. Make sure your psychosomatic batteries recharge.

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The plague that changed the world

For some, probably most, the Covid-19 pandemic is a question of massive mitigation. The aim is to learn lessons and return to business as usual, as soon as possible. For others, it’s different. It’s not just a disaster to get through, but a moment to seize and change the world.

The latter response interests me. It raises the question of what it takes to reimagine life along all its variables: economic and political, educational and existential, ecological and social and spiritual. It’s no mean undertaking.

However, history provides case studies. There have been moments when civilisations have pivoted. The one I have in mind, moreover, seems to have shifted because climate change and pestilence were grim catalysts of transformation.

The gods of Rome

In the third century CE, Christianity emerged into history. It stepped out of the shadows to become a mass phenomenon. There may have been 100,000 Christians in 200 CE. By 300 CE, there were probably around 3,000,000, which in some territories meant Christians accounted for up to 20 percent of the Roman empire’s population. And the rest is, indeed, history.

But what did it take to precipitate that transformation? And what does it suggest about the possibility of civilizational change now?

It’s a complex question, of course, one that can only spark debate, not admit easy answers. But I think there’s good evidence that one element was key. Christianity had what it took to seize the moment and change the world because it offered a new sense of what it is to be human. Moreover, that sense was accessible to the masses.

Part of the story has recently been retold by the historian of antiquity, Kyle Harper. In his brilliant book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017), he presents the case for factoring in the devastating impact of climate change and plague on the Roman system. He gathers the evidence and shows that the moral degeneracy highlighted in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and the bureaucratic overstretch favoured by more recent historians, probably weren’t the key drivers.

Rather, it’s a case of nature thwarting human ambition. Solar cycles and volcanic eruptions, pestilence and viruses, were the ruinous agents. They were felt as an environmental stress that eventually defeated pagan Rome’s longstanding hold on the Mediterranean world.

But that is only half of the story. Collapse is one thing. Regeneration is something else entirely. Here is where the genius of Christianity comes in.

A world’s old age

Consider the most important church figure in the century of Christianity’s appearance. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage from 248-258 CE. A prolific writer and gifted rhetorician, he read the moment and deployed the weapons of critique that he had in his arsenal.

He could see that the fabric of empire was stretched, if not crumbling. Along the frontiers of the Danube, Euphrates, Rhine and Nile – which is to say, north, south, east and west – emperors faced potentially catastrophic threats. The moment of weakness became Cyprian’s opportunity.

He preached about living in “an old age of the world”. He was drawing on the medical wisdom of Galen, which interpreted old age as the gradual evaporation of warmth and vitality. The implication was that Roman civilisation had become decrepit.

It lacked spiritual vitality, for all that emperors tried to conceal it behind the exercise of power. It was out of ideas, which leaders tried to paper over with pageants of games and grandiose building projects. It lacked joy in its soul, which is why people became addicted to peak experiences and carnal pleasures. To instil order and discipline, Rome relied on law not friendship, the army not loyalty, and compulsory cult practices not the natural love of the gods.

Cyprian also spoke of the skies turning grey, the earth becoming thirsty, and the rains failing, which he probably literally felt, along with his listeners. The evidence now is that the climate did change during his lifetime. For example, in 244, 245 and 246 the Nile flooded weakly or not at all, compromising the productivity of Rome’s breadbasket, Egypt.

And then there was the pestilence, now known as the Plague of Cyprian. From the descriptions that survive, it seems most likely that it was caused by a filovirus, from the family of pathogens that includes Ebola. Disease spread across the empire in two years and raged for about fifteen, from 249 CE. Cyprian described it: “the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow, a fire that begins in the inmost depths burns up into wounds in the throat, the intestines are shaken with continuous vomiting, the eyes are set on fire with the force of the blood, the deadly putrefaction cuts off the feet.” At its peak, 5000 people died in Rome every day.

The combination of pestilence and crop failure was a religious as well as civic crisis. Harper describes how emperors minted coins calling on “Apollo the Healer”. The Sibylline books were inspected. It seems likely that in 249 CE, the emperor, Decius, required all citizens to share in a civic act of sacrifice. It was an early response to the outbreak. Some Christians who refused were charged with defiance and grotesque social irresponsibility.

“The combination of pestilence and persecution seems to have hastened the spread of Christianity,” Harper writes. But that brings me back to my initial question. What did Christianity have that enabled Cyprian and others to turn a moment of hideous suffering and dire threat into an opportunity for growth?

Kindness of strangers

The standard answer is moral. In short, Christians cared. For example, Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity describes how Christians remained in afflicted cities when others fled and cared for the sick and dying. That was impressive and also had a real effect. Cleaning and hydrating sufferers increased their chances of survival.

Harper reflects this understanding, too. “Christianity’s sharpest advantage was its inexhaustible ability to forge kinship-networks among perfect strangers based on an ethic of sacrificial love,” he writes.

But this remark begs a factor that’s crucial to highlight. I think it’s determinative. It underpins the ethic of sacrificial love and makes its practice possible.

Put it like this. I don’t believe that the Romans were a heartless breed who cared nothing for human suffering. Contrary to popular opinion, they were not beasts. Many writers, such as Cicero, worried about the violence of gladiatorial games, for example, and the Roman world knew about caring for others. For example, in 212 CE, Caracalla had granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. It was no trivial offer. The relationship between manumitted slaves and patrons was upended. Woman claimed new property rights. Bread became the key handout of a massive welfare state.

What was different now was that Christianity was able to launch an existential revolution. The crucial shift is implicit in what Harper describes as its new networks of “perfect strangers”. This was the secret ingredient that enabled Christianity to seize the moment and launch a civilizational change.

The issue is what enabled those new networks to form. Previously, social networks had been based either on family and kin, or city and citizenship. Hence, the significance of Caracalla’s citizen-based enfranchisement. But Christianity developed the perception that the bonds of family and citizenship had been eclipsed. It did this by showing people that the human individual now had access to the deepest level of reality from within themselves.

The new self

Its innovation was to celebrate the life of one person, Jesus of Nazareth, and insist that his humanity, not his birthplace or status, was the locus of complete and unmediated access to God. As the philosopher, Larry Siedentop, puts it: Christianity “provided an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’.”

The new individuality was grounded in God, enabling individuals to demonstrate acts of sacrificial love for others rooted in relationships that had nothing to do with kin or state. Christians felt that they were spiritually sisters and brothers, and that they belonged to “another country”, a new ethnos or nation, metaphors that emerge early in Christianity.

Preachers such as Paul quickly realised that Jesus pioneered a new way. What was required was response. The individual could aspire to a sense of themselves based upon choice and agency, not fate and duty. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female,” he wrote in an astonishing passage. Instead, Christianity offered a freedom based upon a sense of self that didn’t erase older civic distinctions and religious markers but simply leapt over them. In their inner lives, the individual could transcend cult and position altogether.

As a result, notions such as individual free will and personal conscience emerge as subjects of dispute and discussion among early Christian thinkers. They also developed the idea of resurrection in the face of death. The new individual could hope for postmortem fulfilment, a spiritual body and religious satisfaction in the afterlife, not a dreary retirement to a land of shades. But to hope for these things in the world to come, you need a strong sense of individuality in this world. Christianity rewrote the implication that unless you are a hero or an emperor, you are a poorly differentiated player in the social collective.

Transformation and inspiration

The path to Christianity’s cultural dominance was not straightforward, of course. The persecutions of Diocletian, in the century that followed Cyprian, were fierce, though mostly because Christianity was now a force to be reckoned with.

Then, when the “new empire” bedded down after the crises of the third century, under Constantine, Christianity became the unofficial and then official religion in part because it best expressed how a majority now felt. People had caught onto its penetrating consciousness of human individuality. Whatever else led Constantine to adopt the new faith, it was a canny move. It secured him the longest reign of a Roman emperor since Augustus.

This is the lesson I learn from the civilizational change that is historic Christianity. As a case study, it suggests that to change the world and reimagine life takes more than economic decline or environmental disaster, war or plague, though these may rock societies and systems to the core. It also takes more than redesign or hacking, upgrade or reprogramming. It’s not fundamentally a matter of making sense of the emergency, or cognitively bootstrapping yourself out of the modern meaning crisis.

Transformation requires literal inspiration and radical vision: a new spirit. Civilisations change with a fresh perception of what it is to be human, a revolution of consciousness, and renewed awareness of humankind’s relationship to the interiority of the cosmos, natural and divine. It requires the makings of a new ethnos, anthropology, and probably religion.

That doesn’t happen very often in a way that lasts. But in these weeks of stress, these months of instability, we can attend to events and listen. We can be open. Of ourselves, we can’t forge a path beyond a return to business as usual. But we can keep watch for any signs of a new unveiling and align with them.

Posted in Blog

Freedom in a time of crisis

This piece was written for the Idler.

The monastery has come to us. Life has gone on retreat. For the next period, we’ll be living in the refectory and cloister. And, as transpires when you go on retreat, strange things will happen.

Part of that will be anxiety. There are those for whom Covid-19 gives direct cause for concern. But agitation will be more widespread, too, simply because the customary distractions of life have vanished.

We’re being thrown onto ourselves, and that is unsettling. As Franz Kafka put it: “It’s often better to be in chains than to be free.” But that implies something else, a first surprise. We might seize this unexpected time as freedom.

By freedom, I don’t mean that we won’t be working. Many will. Many will want to. Rather, it’s the freedom of a new mood. It’s social permission to think about life without the usual expectations. It’s a time of imagination.

It’s the freedom some of our ancestors seized during times of plague. Isaac Newton worked on the theory of gravity when his college was closed because of it. William Shakespeare penned King Lear and Macbeth during a similar season. Socrates lived during regular bouts of pestilence induced by the decades-long war against the Spartans. The Athenians were humiliated and lost, but the city’s greatest son sparked an inner revolution.

It’s the freedom that can follow a disaster. It lets you think: what’s it all about?

Retreats offer the same interior liberty. It can be alarming, which is why, when you go on retreat, one of the first things you notice are the treats.

They are simple but thoughtful. A monk may have made biscuits. The cushions on the sofa will be plumped up. And people are kind to each other. They smile at meals when passing the salt and bread. They respect each other’s space to muse, daydream, think.

That suggests a ground rule for the next few weeks. Humdrum benevolence.

A second feature of retreats is the routine. But it’s unlike the pressure of usual life, to get up, to get out, to get somewhere, to get back from somewhere, to sort someone or something out.
Instead, it’s a routine that creates space. It holds and protects the newfound freedom.

A good routine is containing not crowding. Monasteries understand how it works. Something happens roughly every 2 hours. It may be a short service. It may be a bell for tea. It may be the period deliberately earmarked, “recreation”. It’s a time for a walk.

This kind of routine is wonderful. It is creative. It exists to preserve time rather than fill up the time.

Something similar might be adopted in the next few weeks. A coffee break at 11, with the emphasis on the “break”. A step outside to watch the great tits or black birds busy with spring. A pause at 3 to send a message or check the family WhatsApp.

The pattern will also help you stay sane. And this is really important, not just because you don’t want to feel stir-crazy, but because keeping a mind about what’s going on is key to benefiting from the freedom of a retreat.

The psychotherapist, Donald Winnicott, had a word for it: play. He realised that playing is something children practice and adults can do, if they are lucky. It’s the ability to explore, to test, to connect.

It’s akin to what the ancient philosophers meant by the art of living. They used an analogy. Imagine a circle. Inside the circle is what you know, be it the time of the next newsflash or how to make sourdough bread. Outside of the circle is what you don’t know, maybe how long this will last or what life’s all about.

The art of living is playing on the edge of the circle. You neither rush to the centre of the circle grabbing certainties, or panic buying at the supermarket. But neither do you do the foolhardy opposite and dash into the zone of the completely unknown.

Instead, you create a playful mix of facts and imagination, tasks and silence, routine and pondering. There can be dash of trepidation in it, too. What this allows is an easing of the tyranny that would fill our lives, possess our lives, control our lives. It makes space for a revolution: life to speak to us. It’s to let in and listen.

It’s to cultivate different organs of perception, to use William Blake’s phrase. He was sure that, if cleansed, everything would appear as it is: “Infinite”. “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern,” he continued.

And this is, perhaps, the strangest thing that can happen on retreat. It feels like you are closing down, before life starts opening up. It feels like restricting your freedom, until you sense just how unfree everyday life can be. It feels like relocating to an island, but then you discern it’s a place of visions not limits, of fresh experience not dull round.

So keep safe. Wash your hands. But also, enjoy the freedom, the routine, the retreat.

Mark also invites you to accompany him through Dante’s Divine Comedy. He is producing a YouTube film and podcast for each canto, to mark the 700th anniversary of this odyssey masterpiece. See more at www.markvernon.com/dantes-divine-comedy.

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How to survive a group panic

The world is in a collective panic. The coronavirus Covid-19 is the understandable cause.

Crises precipitate shared alarm when the groups to which we belong, from family to nation, realise that the terms of engagement have suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically shifted. The group then regresses into primitive states of anxiety at not knowing who’s in control, what’s going to happen, how to find a way out.

To put it another way, the world is struggling to keep its mind. And it’s very hard to keep your own mind in such an environment.

However, it can be done and the insights of psychotherapist Wilfred Bion are helpful in this respect.

He thought a lot about groups, having worked for many years in mental health hospitals and also seen how the world lost its mind in the First World War, during which he was a tank commander. He felt the panic exploding directly over his head.

He realised that much of the time we’re not actually acting as individuals, even when we think we are, but as members of groups. When our groups are functioning well, and doing what they are supposed to do, we tend not to notice. When all is well with them, all is more or less well with us. They provide a sense of purpose, of agency, of belonging.

But when they go wrong, that sense of wellbeing can depart in an instant, and group functionality rapidly falls apart.

In fact, Bion observed that dysfunctional groups shift into patterns of madness far more quickly than individuals are inclined to do. It’s why wars and internecine spats readily kick off.

This is what is happening over Covid-19. It couldn’t be otherwise. The coronavirus has made many people worry about the group called “my country”. So what, psychologically, is happening?

Bion analysed groups when they stop performing. He noticed that three reactions tend to break out.

A first is that the group in crisis throws up leaders who promise that they will lead everyone out of the chaos. They take on the aura of a saviour or hero, and their followers feel strongly that this person and this person alone is the one speaking the truth.

You see this happening as people turn to individual experts, particularly experts who seem to have an independent authority. The implication is that if we listen to them, we will be saved.

Relatedly, some social, religious and political leaders will identify with a messiah complex and present themselves as the one in charge. You can spot them because they speak as if they can issue words of command; as if they can rescue everyone by personal fiat.

The element these leaders won’t broadcast is the uncertainty, the difficulty, the doubt.

A second reaction that groups in panic manifest is producing sub-groups that try to work out what to do. These sub-groups feel themselves to be relatively clear of the insanity, capable of reasoning a way forward, and will speak with words of apparent wisdom.

You see this happening when self-appointed bodies offer evidence and insights challenging the powers that be. With Covid-19, this is occurring in NGOs, civic groups and opposition parties that are struggling with whether to support authorities or challenge them.

Other sub-groups, such as pressure groups, that are already well-organised because of the climate crisis, will feel compelled to respond to Covid-19, too. They see it as their responsibility to seize the opportunity thrown up by the crisis.

They’ll generate proposals, devise solutions, and be tempted to offer guarantees. They do serve a purpose: keeping up the energy required to find the best ways to establish the right responses.

However, it’s best not to believe their short-term suggestions, however well-meant. At this stage, they are a product of the wider group in crisis, too. Remember, no-one really knows what will happen next. The science, at this stage, is motivated inference, at best.

A third phenomenon you see is fight or flight. This is the chaotic response. People panic-buy, unnecessarily self-isolate, share conspiracy theories, generate rhetoric of fear, anger or hate in an effort to feel powerful not powerless.

At the moment, this seems to be the most widespread response to Covid-19.

Bion concluded that there’s nothing the individual can do to alter the melee but there is something they can do to resist it. They can understand the psychology and ride the storm.

Does someone look like a saviour? Don’t trust them. Is some sub-group saying they’ve got the answer? They’re a product of the panic, too. Do you want to flee or fight in self-defence? It’s an understandable response but risks feeding the storm.

Bion advised sitting down, holding onto your chair, and devoting tine to doing no more than observing the turbulent flow. It might help you keep your mind until the collective mind returns.

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Plato and the Music of Death. A talk in a time of crisis

Download MP3 here.

All the great wisdom traditions tell us that death is an opportunity to reflect on life. Leaning into death reveals more about life, including the perception that life is underpinned by what’s deathless.

Today, all around the world, death seems close. Many of the distractions that can keep us free of such existential anxieties have been eclipsed by the emergence of the coronavirus, Covid-19.

So the proximity of death provides a good moment to turn to one of the western tradition’s greatest meditations on death, which is a reflection on how death can reveal the eternity of life.

Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedo, is an account of the death of Socrates and his last hours. During the short hours he has left, he tries to show his closest friends what he perceives to be the truth about death, which is that it is not the end. Their reflections are a journey towards death, the nearness of which is precisely what enables life beyond death to be seen.

This talk draws directly on the dialogue and tries to convey its insights. Maybe the nearness of death today is a gift, as well as a crisis. It’s an opportunity to hear the deeper music of life, which death might not be able to quench.

If you wanted to read the dialogue for yourself, which is to gain the most from its genius, I’d recommend the edition in the Focus Philosophical Library, translated and introduced by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage and Eric Salem.

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Subtle energies and healing

Psychotherapies that work, though with no agreement about how they work, are becoming mainstream. For example, EMDR is widely used in the treatment of trauma. So what can be said about their efficacy and what, if anything, do they have to do with subtle energies, morphic resonance, quantum phenomena or even the soul?

In this episode of the Sheldrake-Vernon dialogues, I ask Rupert how his theory of morphogenetic fields might relate to various types of therapy and healing. We consider how certain explanations can appear “hand wavy” and how to be more discerning when discussing these things.

It turns out that there is good evidence that a variety of such therapies work, but how they work is not understood. So arguably it is better to avoid pseudo-scientific explanations and let the treatments, and their efficacy, speak for themselves.

The many previous discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake can be found on youtube, streamed, Spotify, iHeartRadio, as a playlist on SoundCloud, and on iTunes.


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Regaining our spiritual commons

This thought piece was written for Perspectiva.

Here’s a pub quiz question. Which piece of British legislation was on the statute books longer than any other? Answer: The Charter of the Forest. It was signed in 1217 and lasted 754 years.

The follow-up question is, do you know what it secured? And the answer to that is: The Commons.

The commons are those shared resources that nobody in particular owns; typically including land and forests, water and minerals. The charter asserted the right of common men and women to subsistence, to work and to reparation for loss of commons.

Nowadays, in an age of enclosures, sell-offs, privatisation and imparkments, it’s shocking to learn that in the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody. Fifty per cent.

It raises the question of how that was possible and I suspect it was because people had a powerful sense of an even more extensive commons. There was also a “spiritual commons”. The land belonged to nobody because it belonged to everybody, which is to say that people were conscious of it as part of life itself.

It’s why, in the ancient world, economics was theorised as a type of knowledge or wisdom. It had to do with the relationship of households and cities to nature and deities. The aim was to facilitate the greatest human goods in conjunction with the gods.

Similarly, in the medieval period, estates and kingdoms were regarded fundamentally as entrusted patrimonies bestowed by heaven, not capital resources defined by law. It was a world “charged with the grandeur of God”, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, equally blessed and terrifying.

Those times were not utopias, of course. But it does suggest that alongside the tangible loss of the commons, the spiritual commons has been lost to us too. My intuition is that matters. The world has been turned into property that can be traded. It can be manipulated because, stripped of its spiritual vitality, its extrinsic value outshines any intrinsic meaning. The unintended byproduct is that we are now viciously spiralling down a vortex of unsustainable consumption because we are caught in an agony of lost meaning, desperately seeking proxies for the spiritual commons in addictive consumption.

If this is even partly right, we will need to regain sight of this lost dimension to save ourselves and the planet. But can that be done? Can the spiritual commons be re-imagined again for our times? My hypothesis is that the undertaking is hopeful because spiritual commons is not depleted. It is a type of wealth defined not by scarcity but abundance. It cannot be traded, though we can be trained to enjoy it. It’s here, still, already. It’s disappeared from view but not disappeared. So, what does it look like?

Spiritual commons includes the capacities we have to imagine and to relate, to know and to delight. It’s also the practical wisdom about how to live well and thrive. Its nature is akin to the wealth Albert Einstein had in mind when he asked: “Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi with the moneybags of Carnegie?”

It is the non-material aspects of life that, more often than not, are crucial for finding meaning and purpose, particularly when life involves suffering. The appreciation of what’s good, beautiful and true should be added to the list, therefore, as well as the freedom to orientate one’s life around them. This also implies that love lives in this domain.

To care for spiritual commons would involve fights… We’d have to make the case for free will and the life of the mind, which means resisting both being reduced to brain products.

My sense is that the rediscovery of spiritual commons would be primarily an imaginative and educative task. We might train ourselves to relate to it again. It would be known through deepening attention and expanding perception. It’s about focusing on what’s implicit as well as measurable; valuing what’s felt as well as what can be kicked. It’s about toying with the possibility that the whole world has an inner life, not just the bit of it that’s my body and yours.

I think time would be a crucial element to re-imagine, too, the spiritual commons given to us freely each day by the sun. Some simple words could help differentiate between types of time, thereby to experience its qualities afresh.

The ancient Greeks might assist. They could tell the difference between several types of time. There was recreation, which was about fostering spiritual commons such as participation and compassion when going to a play or sharing in a sport. There was leisure, which was time for pursuing activities such education or visiting the temple. And there was inactivity, which Aristotle regarded as vital for the highest human experience of all: conscious awareness of how you are living and what qualities it exhibits.

There was also work, though the Greeks might also advise taking a stand against the use of phrases like “free time”. It implies that work is the owner of time, which is one of our fundamental mistakes, removing it from our spiritual commons.

To care for spiritual commons would involve fights. I think we’d have to make the case for free will and the life of the mind, which means resisting both being reduced to brain products. We’d also have to show that the horizons of human intelligence reach far further than the domains of decision-making and problem-solving, as is assumed by researchers in artificial intelligence. It includes contemplation and appreciation, imagination and inspiration, all of which are truth-bearing too.

Another area of contention has been highlighted by Andrew Kimbrell, not least in his publication, Cold Evil: Technology and Modern Ethics. “Cold evil” is the insidious valuing of objectivity over intuition and understanding; efficiency over affection and friendship; competition over help and vulnerability – in other words, another loss of spiritual commons. He cites the dictum that “technology is a way of organising the world so that we do not experience it”. Experience is at the heart of regaining spiritual commons so technology may often, therefore, be an opponent, though the hope is that a rekindled imagination would help us to spot that and see how it can mindfully serve not mindlessly shape us.

Spiritual commons are often manifest in and through the loveliness of the material world, so that matters as well. It’s another area, alongside education, where spiritual commons has practical implications. That was spotted early by John Ruskin.

Consider his 1884 lecture, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which he noted that “one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw” was in 1876, almost a decade previously. The colours back then were “prismatic”, he said, the sun going into “gold and vermillion”. “The brightest pigments we have would look dim beside the truth,” he continued. He had attempted to reflect that glorious manifestation of the spiritual commons in paint.

He also knew that his experience of its beauty was lost because the atmosphere was becoming polluted. As a keen observer of nature, he noted how dust and smoke muddied and thinned the sky’s brilliance. In short, it would be crucial to clean up the environment if the vivid, natural displays were to return. Of course. But the subtler point Ruskin draws our attention to is the one about motivation: he wanted the vivid, natural displays because he had an awareness of, and desire for, spiritual commons.

Imagination, relationship, knowledge, delight. Wisdom and time, truth and love, the implicit and the felt. The meaning of suffering and the purpose of struggle. Life has been organised around spiritual commons before. Might training ourselves to become conscious of their abundance again help us to do so once more?

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The Divine Comedy at 700

This piece was written for The Idler. To join me on the journey through the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso click here.

The first group of the damned that Dante meets upon entering hell are running en masse “as an interminable train”. They can’t stop scampering and press together as an aimless collective.

Dante looks closer and sees that they’re following a banner. The flag is raised aloft as it rushes ahead of them. It can’t take a stand. It doesn’t know what it stands for. And that’s why its blind followers can’t stop either. They’re on a treadmill, running a rat race, forever.

This year, 2020, marks the 700th anniversary of the completion of the great Divine Comedy. It’s a miracle, quite as fresh today as when its final part, Paradiso, appeared in 1320, a year before Dante’s departure for the purgatory he anticipated. Unlike hell, that’s a place of hope, where people become all they are and capable of the tremendous vision of God.

The poem is many things: a diatribe against the church, a celebration of human qualities, a warning that this life matters, a path of awakening, an odyssey.

It was also born of a midlife crisis. Its opening words are famous: “Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood.” (This is how Mark Musa translates it in the Penguin Classics edition, which I’d recommend both for accessibility and helpful notes.)

Dante presumed he’d been living his life well enough. He was a famous poet and respected politician. He appeared to be following the right path. But suddenly, he wakes up. He realises he has strayed, badly.

Though he’d not noticed, he’s wandering through a wilderness. He’s not sure what life is about and surrounding him, pressing in, are threats. The air tastes bitter. He becomes fearful. Truth is out of reach.

During his lifetime, his beloved city of Florence had collapsed into civil war. The conflict threatened his life and he was banished on pain of death. As it turned out, he was never again to see the gorgeous duomo, meandering Arno or handsome piazzas. It was a terrible burden to bear, particularly for a poet, because the city-states to which he fled spoke different dialects, held different festivals, sang different songs.

But his crisis was a turning point. It led to his greatest work that still speaks because his age was, in a way, the beginning of our age.

I realised this on the Idler retreat in Umbria last year. We visited Assisi, home of St Francis, whose revolution began to sweep across Europe a generation or so before Dante’s birth. It was a response to the bloated culture of the medieval church and to the mechanical ways of life that were spreading as mercantilism forced people into workshops. Francis stressed individual freedom and spiritual joy; a love of nature and care for others.

Dante celebrates these things in his poem. He sings of a cosmos that’s a festival not a machine. He sees enchanted gardens and mountains, magical rivers and processions. To read his poem is to realise how greatly human beings can flourish.

But it begins with the recognition of where he’s at, in a dark wood. He must descend into hell to understand the full extent of his predicament. Then he can begin the ascent to heaven.

It’s another reason why he can speak to us in 2020. The sense that something has gone wrong is now palpable. Mercantilism has morphed into hyper-capitalism. We can’t stop running after a flag that doesn’t take a stand. Life often feels bloated and mechanical. We’re in a spiritual crisis.

We must think again for ourselves. We must see the world afresh and understand. I believe Dante can help us discover how.

Begin the journey now!

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