The magickal turn

Instagram witch Harmony Nice

Recently, I’ve noticed several friends and acquaintances – mainly millennials – getting into magick.  A 30-year-old successful professional woman who pays to consult a globe-trotting voodoo-priestess about her love life. A 33-year-old musician who’s left a humanist community and joined a coven. Stephen Reid, formerly a leader of UK Uncut, who then set up The Psychedelic Society and now runs magick rituals. I get the sense our culture, and particularly millennial culture, is having a magickal moment. But why is now the witching hour? Several possible reasons – these are just guesses. Millennial women are attracted to magick perhaps because it offers a form of spirituality that empowers young women, rather than subjugating them. The image of magick has gone from middle-aged bangly suburban women to hip young urban influencers like Lana Del Rey, or ‘witches of Instagram’ stars like Harmony Nice. Witches, says Cosmopolitan, are ‘the new social media influencers’. Magickal symbols increasingly show up on the catwalk, in music videos, or Netflix shows like the re-boot of Sabrina. Young women sign up to astrology apps, read Sabat magazine, and swap copies of Women Who Run With Wolves. There’s a networking aspect to it – covens are the contemporary equivalent of the 70s feminist circle, or the female equivalent of Masonic lodges. Magick has also flourished thanks to the internet, both as a medium for dissemination (wicca forums, astrology and tarot apps), and as an ethos. As the writer Erik Davis has explored, Silicon Valley tech-heads have been drawn to magick since the 1990s – it fits well with the idea that one can use tools or algorithms to conjure up virtual worlds, which in turn alter material reality and make you powerful and rich. Think of the opening scene of The Social Network. Eduardo writes an algorithm on his dormitory window and – abracadabra! – the whole of Harvard is in uproar within an hour.   More broadly, the rise of magick is part of the growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic, particularly among millennials. Contemporary spirituality is decentralized and anti-hierarchical. We’re suspicious of gurus and priests, we’re not even sure we’re into a monotheistic God. We want our spirituality close to the Earth and nature, we prefer local spirits to transcendent principles. We want rituals, but prefer to make up our own rather than fit into crusty established ceremonies. Magick fits well with this DIY, bricolage spirituality. Both shamanism and tantric Buddhism have proved popular in Western spirituality, and both incorporate the magickal idea that you can use your imagination and intention to channel divine energies and change your reality. In some ways, it’s a ritualized version of the Law of Attraction – visualize the future you want, and it will happen. Both promise quick results. And who knows, maybe millennials are particularly drawn to magick because they grew up on Harry Potter. My generation grew up on Star Wars so we’re more drawn to eastern wisdom (Yoda). Magical politics I also wonder if we’re having a magick moment because of our desperate political situation. It strikes me that both Amazon shamanism and Tibetan tantric Buddhism are religions of the oppressed. These cultures, both at the mercy of foreign invaders for centuries, turned to magic out of despair, when they are outnumbered and the facts of material reality are against them. Are young Westerners also drawn to magick today out of political despair? I’ve been reading, this week, about the Kalachakra ritual, one of the highest tantric rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the Dalai Lama’s favourite ritual – he’s conducted the three-day ceremony 11 times in public, twice in the West, and once, in 1985, to 200,000 people in India. The ritual has different levels, open to different levels of initiate. The highest level apparently involves a male initiate having sex with one or more mudras, or female consorts. The male adept then takes on the female’s energy and becomes highly empowered by balancing male and female energies within him (the woman is typically an accessory to male empowerment in Tibetan tantra).The Dalai Lama has hinted he’s taken part in this highest-level sex magick – it’s curious to think this kindly old man, global symbol of inoffensive spirituality, is also a high-level sex magician. Hey, if he can still do it at 83, good luck to him. The lower levels of the Kalachakra ritual are more open to the lay-person, and the Dalai Lama has authorized the English translation of the ritual. It’s basically a very long and extremely complicated visualization process. The initiate imagines entering a palace shaped like a mandala, then imagines seeing various deities and spirits, and becoming one with them. It’s a feat of both imagination and memory to keep this extremely complicated picture in your mind. I took part in a Tara tantric empowerment once, and I was lost after five minutes.

The Kalachakra mandala, painted onto sand, is then visualized by initiates as a magickal, reality-altering symbol

It’s interesting to consider, in passing, how important the imagination is to Tantra, to shamanism, to Sufism, and to Christian meditative traditions like the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In all of these traditions, the imagination is a divine power which can transform the psyche and also transform the body (meditate on the Passion intensely enough and you will receive the stigmata). Modern psychology has learned a certain amount from these wisdom traditions, but I don’t think it has a deep appreciation of imagination – what it is, what it can do, how we can use it to change ourselves. But these traditions don’t think the imagination can just change the mind and body. They also think it can change the world.
The Kalachakra ritual, for example, is more than just a ritual of personal transformation. It’s a magickal rite of political transformation, a weapon of war for a dispossessed people. The text mentions the myth of the magical hidden kingdom of Shambhala. Supposedly, in the future, the world will descend into chaos and barbarism. The armies of darkness – described in the text as mlecchas – will come together under a world-emperor. At that point, the magical kingdom of Shambhala will reveal itself, and its king will ride out with his armies and magical weapons,and utterly rout the enemies. Then Tibetan Buddhism will be established as the world religion, and the Earth will enter a golden age of peace and prosperity. This is the Tibetan Buddhist version of Jihad. The mlecchas are identified as the followers of Mohammad and Jesus. Contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, naturally, say the jihad is just a metaphor for an inner revolution, but that was not the case historically – the myth seems to have arisen when Buddhist communities were being attacked by Muslims in Afghanistan and north India, and pushed back into the Himalaya. This grand fantasy of revenge was born out of historical defeat and despair. I wonder – does the Dalai Lama think that initiating hundreds of thousands into the Kalachakra today will help save Tibet from Chinese occupation? Perhaps millennials are also drawn to magick out of a need for sense of control amid bewildering global change. The Atlantic asked earlier this year why millennials are so into astrology and came to a similar conclusion – they’re an anxious generation at a difficult historical moment, and astrology gives them something to hold onto (even if they don’t totally believe in it). Certainly I find myself paying more attention to astrology in times when I feel stuck and unsure what to do. Perhaps the turn to magick expresses this sort of political despair and hope for a miracle. I noticed Stephen Reid, formerly of UK Uncut and now director of the Psychedelic Society, organized a magickal ritual in Parliament Square as part of Extinction Rebellion – in eight years he’s gone from traditional socialist activism, to psychedelics, to magick. Myths of the apocalypse or golden age are also coming back into the mainstream – the myth of Shambhala has struck a chord with some environmental activists like Joanna Macy (here she is talking about it). Friends warn me of the astrological turbulence set to hit the world in 2019, or the Maian prophecy, or the end-time warning of some Amazon elders. This is exactly what you’d expect to see happening now, when we’re going through a historical crisis comparable to the birth of modernity in the 15th to 17th-centuries. Back then, as the historian Norman Cohn explored, Europe was filled with end-time prophecies and sudden millenarian movements – the prospect of apocalypse propelled many unlikely prophets to temporary prominence. They would inspire their followers with their incredible certainty, seize control of the historical moment, proclaim the coming of a Golden Age, and then inevitably, be routed as their dream failed to materialize. I see contemporary western politics as increasingly prone to magical thinking. Like medieval peasants, we suspect our enemies have access to secret occult powers. We blame the rise of Donald Trump on chaos magick, and try to use our own magick against him. We try to concoct the magical spell, formula or symbol that will galvanize the masses and save the world. We rely on imagination to save us from the present quagmire. ‘What’s money really?’ asks Russell Brand. ‘It’s just an imaginary concept. We can just stop believing in it.’ It’s true that, in the short-term, magickal techniques – stories, symbols, mantras, ceremonies – can have surprisingly large political impacts, because politics is partly a question of trying to seize the public’s imagination. This is what scholar of the occult Gary Lachman calls ‘meme magic’. You come up with a mantra like Take Back Control, or Make America Great Again, and see if it spreads in the imagination of the masses. You come up with a symbol like the Guy Fawkes mask beloved of the Occupy movement, which was created by comic magician Alan Moore. Or you conjure a utopia to aim for, like the Shambhala myth, or a dystopia to avoid, like the Tory party’s Project Fear.

The comic writer and magician Alan Moore goes to Occupy London and sees the magickal symbol of rebellion he created (in V for Vendetta) playing out in this world

So in that sense, political magick does work. But if it isn’t backed up by effective policies in the material world, the city in the sky dissipates into thin air.  Look at Trump’s magical MAGA spell, for example. He very effectively conjured a dream into his followers’ fevered imaginations. Hillary is a crook, a Satanic witch. The elite are evil, possibly demonic. He is going to save America, drain the swamp. He’s going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it. But, two years into power, the intoxication is wearing off, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious, there’s no wall. Where’s the magic wall? The more Trump and his government insist the wall is a reality,the more they sound like Hitler in his bunker in 1944, insisting the war is nearly won. The magic trick is exposed. I expect we will turn to increasingly far-out forms of magical politics this century, in our desperation to avoid the grim facts of material reality.  Still, we do need a miracle. We need hope. At the very least, we need to be able to imagine a future beyond the collapse of the status quo. If that’s magical thinking, pass me a wand.

Trump and Nietzsche

I wasn’t a big reader as a youth. I was more of a jock and a class clown. It was only around the age of 17 that I suddenly became a moody adolescent book-worm – it was both a quickening and a sickening. In one term, I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Cases of Hysteria, and also watched Blue Velvet. Strong medicine! I had a sudden horrifying and fascinating sense of the dark subconscious bubbling beneath civilized appearances.

The book that made the biggest impression on me, by far, was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. I was transfixed by his description of the play of two opposing forces in ancient Greek culture – the Apollonian, which seeks limits and moderation, and the Dionysian, which seeks excess and ecstasy. I started to see these forces everywhere. Every essay I wrote weaved its way inevitably back to the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The obsession continued at university. Fifteen years later, I wrote my first book on the Socratic path to flourishing, and my second on the Dionysian path. How long a shadow that book has cast!

Strangely enough, I never read other books by Nietzsche. I got my Nietzschean philosophy second-hand, from the novels of DH Lawrence. But recently I was sent a new biography of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux, called I Am Dynamite. I devoured it – it’s a beautiful, moving, and very absorbing account of a heroic and pathetic life. And it inspired me to read more Nietzsche, and consider influence on our time a little more deeply.

Nietzsche grew up in a fairly well-to-do German family in Prussia, but the family fortunes took a turn for the worse when his father – a Lutheran pastor – died of a degenerative brain illness in his 30s. The family became hard-up, but Nietzsche lifted them up through his academic brilliance. He was appointed a professor of philology at the age of 25, but he dreamt of being a composer. He managed to befriend Richard Wagner – already a European celebrity – and spent the happiest days of his life at the Wagner castle, where he was embraced as one of the family. For a few years, he moved in the exalted atmosphere of Chateaux Wagner – all high ideals and swooning ecstasies.

But his 30s were not as glorious as his 20s. He wrote The Birth of Tragedy at 28, but it was greeted with ominous silence by the press and academic peers. It was so over-the-top in its ecstatic style, compared to the average plodding academic work. Then he fell out with Wagner, and fell in love with a 20-year-old Russian, named Lou Salome, who ultimately rejected his advances and humiliated him. He was prone to terrible migraines and digestive troubles, and was often confined to bed for days. He found himself tramping across Europe, from city to city, self-publishing his own books, and almost always alone.

Nietzsche in a humorous photo with his friend Paul Ree and 20-year-old Russian tearaway Lou Salome. The three lived in a sort of Platonic menage a trois for a while, before Lou and Paul abandoned the besotted Nietzsche. He became markedly more misogynistic afterwards. ‘You go to women?’ he wrote. ‘Do not forget the whip.’

Yet somehow, out of these inauspicious circumstances, his ideas burst forth, more and more confident and radical. He was certain that he had an entirely new vision of existence, which would destroy the last 2500 years of morality, and pave the way for a bold new adventure for mankind.

When one reads the great prophets of moral philosophy – the Buddha, Plato, the Stoics, Christ, the author of the Upanishads – one notices that they all preach self-knowledge, self-examination, self-control, sobriety, chastity and asceticism of the body. Only through this self-denial, we are told, can the virtuous person go beyond desires and appetites, beyond appearances, beyond impermanence, and arrive at some transcendental resting place – the One, God, the Logos, Buddha-nature, Brahman.

Nietzsche, through his great ‘transvaluation of values’, turns all these systems on their head. Their morality is not virtue and health. It is sickness, weakness, pessimism, nihilism, a symptom of decadence and decline. It is the consolation of the weak, the broken and the disappointed, those who turn wearily from life and ‘put their last trust in a sure nothing rather than an uncertain something’.

He writes, perhaps with the Buddha in mind: ‘They encounter an invalid or an old man or a corpse, and straightaway they say ‘Life is refuted!’ But only they are refuted, they and their eye that sees only one aspect of existence.

These famous moral systems are really an outgrowth of ‘slave morality’. The slave-philosopher Epictetus is a perfect example. He has no power over external things, so he says that true power, true freedom, is power over one’s thoughts and desires. How convenient. Then, like Socrates, he preaches this acceptance-of-weakness to strong aristocratic youth, and ruins them.

The ‘slave-morality’ was first invented by the Jews, Nietzsche says, out of their weakness and domination by various more powerful races. Judeo-Christianity pretends to be a morality of meekness and forgiveness, but underneath that mask lurks resentment and passive-aggression. ‘I forgive you’, they say to their conquerors, but what they really mean is ‘I’m better than you’. And the Romans, alas, fell for it.

Against the slave-morality, Nietzsche champions the masters, the ‘blond beasts’, those strong, carefree warriors who maraud across the world from time to time, like the Vikings, the Teutonic knights, the Mongols, the Indian Kshatriyas, the Greek aristocrats. They were young, healthy, vigorous, laughing, cruel and violent. They basically did what they liked, and called it ‘noble’, and had a gay old time of it until Socrates, Jesus, Lao Tse and the Buddha came along and ruined everything.

Nietzsche thought that liberal democracy was really an extension of Christianity, with its sympathy for the weak and the rights of man. He looked across late 19th century Europe, with its campaigns for universal suffrage, gender equality and the welfare state, and saw the triumph of slave morality, the triumph of the herd, the masses, the little people. It made him sick. He railed against the plebs, and especially against female suffrage – ‘the struggle for equal rights is a symptom of sickness’, he wrote. Healthy women loved to obey men. Only barren women fought for equality.

Democratic, plebeian, mediocre Europeans had lost any sense of greatness. They’d lost even the memory of God and of their predecessors’ heroic struggle for transcendence. They just wanted comfort and ‘well-being’. Nietzsche was no fan of well-being:

You want, if possible—and there is not a more foolish “if possible”—TO DO AWAY WITH SUFFERING; and we?—it really seems that WE would rather have it increased and made worse than it has ever been! Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible—and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering—know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto?

Instead, he lays out a new vision for humans, a new project: the Ubermensch, or Superman. He writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra: ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome.’ We should seek to transcend ourselves not in the service of ‘super-terrestrial hopes’ like God or Nirvana, but rather in the service of self-actualization. This self-actualization – becoming what we are – does not involve the disciplining of the body, the emotions and the desires, but rather letting the desires, emotions and body sing and dance. It does not mean a weary obedience to rules and precepts handed down by priests, but rather the bold creation of new values. Man creates meaning, he does not receive it from God. And this self-actualization will be here and now, in this body, on this Earth, or it will be nowhere. We must resist the urge to find consolation and security in fake metaphysical dreams like God or Nirvana, and instead learn to dance with uncertainty and chaos.

By 1888, Nietzsche felt he had blown his way clear of the old morality, and was euphoric with the new prospects he saw for mankind. He wrote four books in nine months, they poured out of him. He was filled with joy, and even lost control of his face and his emotions – he couldn’t stop grinning. He saw coincidences in everything. ‘He only had to think of a person for a letter from them to arrive politely through the door.’ His letters to his friends became increasingly manic. He started to allude to himself as Dionysus, or ‘The Crucified’. ‘I shall rule the world from now on.’ ‘In two months time I shall be the foremost name on the earth’.

In January 1889 he had some sort of breakdown in the streets of Turin. It is said he saw a man whipping a horse, and he clung to the horse’s neck and wept. How poignant if this is true – the man who condemned pity breaks down in pity! He retreated to his apartment, where he screamed and danced naked. His friend Franz Overbeck was contacted, and found Nietzsche cowering in a corner, trying to read his writings but obviously unable to comprehend them. He never recovered his mind – never seemed to know who he was or what was happening.

He was 44, but lived for another 11 years. His sister Elizabeth, who sounds an evil and selfish anti-Semite, took care of him, and cashed in on his growing success. She ran salons celebrating his work in the living-room, while Nietzsche howled in his bedroom upstairs. She controlled his estate, and turned him into a prophet of Nazism. Hitler came to visit, and emerged from their conversation bearing Nietzsche’s walking stick.

Was Nietzsche’s collapse a divine punishment for his hubris and over-reaching? Some kind of psychosis or spiritual emergency? Or a neurological illness, perhaps inherited from his father? We don’t know. But, just as he prophesized, in the years after his collapse his influence grew and grew. His dynamite philosophy blew a hole in Victorian complacency, and created a space for the fierce experimentation of modernism.

For some years after World War 2, Nietzsche was understandably out of fashion. But he’s been rehabilitated since the 1970s, and is now one of the most popular subjects for philosophy PhDs. Scholars have clarified that, unlike his sister, he wasn’t anti-Semitic – he admired Jewish culture. Nor was he a nationalist – he thought nationalism was a cheap intoxicant, despised German militarism, and called himself a ‘good European’. He was a key influence on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and helped to create what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is so popular in left-wing humanities and social sciences: what secret interest lurks under an ideal? Aren’t all claims to ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ really disguised power-grabs by particular interest groups?

This new biography will add to his good reputation – what a heroic man we meet, what a stylist, what a humourist! Who else has chapter headings like ‘Why I am so clever’! Who else can tear apart an entire philosophy (like Stoicism) with a few hilarious sentences. What brilliant psychological insights he threw up in his inspired frenzy – on the unconscious, the ego, projection, the wisdom of the body.

It’s awkward, then, that this new, sympathetic, rehabilitated Nietzsche should prove to be so popular with the alt-right. The American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer has said he was ‘Red Pilled by Nietzsche’, and many other angry young white men on alt-right or Red Pill websites have nothing but praise for Nietzsche. They don’t get him, insist liberal or leftist defenders of Nietzsche. They’re misappropriating him. They’re making the same mistakes the Nazis made.

Oh come off it. Foucault is right that there are many Nietzsches, but one of the most consistent notes one hears is contempt for the masses and hatred of liberal democracy, equality, and the rights of women, workers or the weak. As I read his books this week – particularly Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals  – I thought how well it fit with the alt-right worldview: Liberal democracy is a monstrous cacophony that seeks to shame and emasculate strong men. It is a dictatorship of the offended, the resentful, and the easily bruised, who seek power through victimhood and hurt feelings. This conspiracy of the weak will only work if strong men fall for it – if they become cuks or ‘white knights’, in alt-right and Red Pill terms – if they are so credulous as to believe that women or minority groups really are interested in ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ rather than simply power and domination. But the strong man, the Alpha male, will break the bonds of liberal guilt and roam free, just like Trump, Bo-Jo, Bolsonaro, Orban, Duterte, Erdogan, Berlusconi, and every other blond or not so-blond beast now strutting on the world stage.

How could the alt-right and Red Pillers not thrill to passages like this, where Nietzsche gets nostalgic about the good ol’ days of rape and pillage enjoyed by the ‘blond beasts’:

They enjoy freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson, rape, and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student’s prank had been played, perfectly convinced that the poets have now an ample theme to sing and celebrate.

It reminds one of Kavanaugh – it’s all just student pranks…just bants!

There are passages where Nietzsche even sounds like Trump – in his insults against women, and his absurd boasting: ‘At no moment of my life can I be shown to have adopted any kind of arrogant or pathetic posture’, he says, before continuing: ‘Anyone who saw me during the seventy days of this autumn when I was uninterruptedly creating nothing but things of the first rank which no man will be able to do again or has done before, bearing a responsibility for all the coming millennia, will have noticed no trace of tension in me.’ It reminds me of Trump’s immortal line: ‘I’m much more humble than you would understand’.

How could fascists not grin at Nietzsche’s Strangelovian denunciations of the superfluous dwarves of liberal democracy, who don’t deserve any sympathy – in fact, it is just this sympathy which has led to the ‘DETERIORATION OF THE EUROPEAN RACE’? How could they not cheer at his calls for ‘the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless destruction of all degenerate and parasitic elements’, at his yearning for ‘the harshest but most necessary wars’, at his praise of violence and cruelty as the source of all higher culture, at his endless comments like: ‘The weak and the failures shall perish. They ought even to be helped to perish’.

I could give many such quotes. Nietzsche can’t be called a fascist or alt-righter, because he never stayed in one position long, and he rejected any political action as ‘filth’. But the alt-right can find a lot to love in him. I’m sure sometimes he is being provocative – just bants! – but words and ideas easily slip off the page and kill people.

And this champion of strength and virility was a sickly and weak man, a failure in the army, a loser in love, who claimed not to need public attention yet became more and more megalomaniac until he claimed to be a god. He’s right that there can be something morbid and unhealthy in Stoicism and other philosophies of consolation – but there is also, surely, something morbid and resentful in him, the impoverished and humiliated Prussian constantly insisting on his aristocratic rank. One can find him interesting, funny, fascinating, even sympathetic, and still be honest about the toxicity of his ideas and the damage they do.

Perennialism and fascism

Aldous Huxley and Rene Guenon


While I was in San Francisco, I got the chance to meet Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute. It’s a cross between a spiritual retreat centre and an adult education college, perched on the cliffs of Big Sur next to some hot springs. It’s been very influential on transpersonal psychology and American spirituality.

Murphy and I discussed the cultural influence of the ‘mystical expats’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – on the vision of Esalen and on American culture in general. They helped to popularise the idea of the ‘perennial philosophy’ – the idea there is a common core of wisdom at the heart of all the great religious traditions, and one can use spiritual practices from various traditions. That idea is now at the centre of American culture – being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the fastest-growing demographic in American religion.

It was a treat to hear Mike’s fond reminiscences about them – how he and Esalen co-founder Dick Price were turned on by hearing Huxley lecture on ‘human potentialities’, how they went to meet Gerald Heard in LA and came away mesmerized and burning with the desire to found Esalen, how Huxley and his wife Laura came to meet them in Big Sur and insisted on seeing the local butterflies, how they first dropped acid with Laura, how Alan Watts was the greatest spontaneous speaker Murphy ever heard.

I was particularly interested to hear Murphy make the connection between the San Francisco Renaissance – the cultural movement ranging from the Beats to the Hippies and arguably still ongoing in Silicon Valley – to the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural flowering involving creative thinking in politics, science, the arts and religion. One of its chief ideas was the perennial philosophy.  One finds perennialism in the religious movement called ‘Brahmoism’, which was started by the great Bengali thinker and reformer Ram Mohan Roy in around 1850, and which suggests that all religions are partial formulations of the transcendent divinity within us. One also finds perennialism in the teachings of Vivekananda, dashing Bengali prophet of Vedanta, who caused a sensation when he visited the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and declared that all religions are true.

I often encountered the same cheerful perennialism while travelling in India last year – in the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Chennai (which has temples to all the major religions), in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I spent two weeks in a Zen / Jesuit retreat in Tamil Nadu, where we bowed to both Christ and the Buddha. This perennialism was a breath of fresh air after a period of desperately trying to be a Proper Christian.

Murphy pointed out to me that the ‘mystical expats’ helped to transmit the perennialist fire from Bengal to California. Heard, Huxley and Isherwood popularised Vedanta, the Hindu mysticism brought to the West by Vivekananda; while the evolutionary spirituality of Sri Aurobindo was transmitted into the Bay Area through the American Academy of Asian Studies – a small college that Alan Watts helped to found, which evolved into the California Institute of Integral Studies (Murphy was a student there). Watts also helped to transmit Zen and Daoist thinking into San Francisco, inspiring everyone from Jack Kerouac to John Cage. The perennialist spark caught fire in American culture, and now it’s widely accepted.

Perennialism and renaissances

It’s interesting that the ‘perennial philosophy’ was transmitted from one famous cultural renaissance to another. It got me thinking about perennialism and renaissances. If one looks back at the ‘American Renaissance’ – the sudden flowering of American literature led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and others – one also encounters the perennial philosophy, particularly in Emerson and Thoreau. The stern Puritan soul of America suddenly relaxes, expands, and sees its smiling reflection in other cultures – in Platonism, in Hinduism, in a blade of grass.

One also finds the hot spring of the perennial philosophy bubbling up in the Romantic era, in Coleridge and Blake (‘all religions are one’) and, earlier, in the Italian Renaissance, at the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, who translated the works of Plato and ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, and sought to find a harmony between Christianity, Greek philosophy and Kabbalah. The optimism and creativity of this movement sings in the ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ of Pico della Mirandola, and shines in the radiance of Botticelli and Raphael.

The perennialist stream bubbles up yet again in the Islamic Renaissance (more usually known as the Islamic Golden Age), which is usually connected by scholars to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars translated the works of Greek and Roman philosophers and scientists.  One can trace the connection between the perennial philosophy and cultural flowerings all the way back to the Athenian Golden Age of the fifth century BC, when again, the human soul looks up from narrow tribalism, and smiles. Socrates declares: ‘I am a citizen of the universe’, leading the Stoics to suggest that all humans have a spark of the divine logos within them.

These are important moments of collective epiphany and cultural evolution in the story of homo sapiens. What they seem to have in common is a strong sense of cultural self-confidence – ‘we are Indians!’, ‘we are Americans!’, ‘we are Athenians!’ etc – with an openness to other cultures and the best they have to teach. And there’s a sense of optimism in progress, a sense of humans rising up and realizing their inner divinity – you see this in Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration, in Emerson’s great sermon on self-reliance, in Huxley’s lectures on human potential.

The varieties of Perennialism

But then I thought, perennialism isn’t always optimistic and hopeful. While researching the perennial philosophy, you can’t help but come across a movement called Traditionalism. It was started by a French thinker called René Guénon in around 1920. Like the mystical expats, he was initially inspired by Vedanta, then he flirted with Catholicism, got into Taoism, before moving to Egypt and becoming initiated into a Sufi order. He inspired other traditionalists including Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola and Mircea Eliade.

There’s a lot of similarities between Huxley et al’s Perennial Philosophy, and Guénon et al’s Traditionalism – they share the idea that western civilization has lost its soul in mechanical materialism, and that only a return to the core of wisdom at the heart of the great religious traditions will save civilization from collapse.

And yet Traditionalism is a much more pessimistic movement. Guénon and his successors, like the followers of Gurdjieff, thought wisdom could only ever be esoteric, reserved for the initiated elite. The masses would never get it. Traditionalists were constantly joining or creating esoteric secret societies, like the Gnostic Church, the Masons, the Maryamiya, the ‘Fraternity of the Cavalier of the Divine Paraclete’, or the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’.

They typically despaired of democratic politics, and flirted with the far-right – in Julius Evola’s case, this flirtation was quite explicit, as he tried to ingratiate himself first with Italian fascism and then with the Nazis. Mircea Eliade also had connections to the Romanian far-right. Where Huxley et al became cheery prophets of human potential, the Traditionalists were doom-mongers of the Apocalypse – they insisted we’re in Kali Yuga, a Hindu dark age of conflict and spiritual mediocrity. Humans aren’t ascending, we’re on the down-elevator, so the elite should withdraw and prepare for the deluge, or possibly seize power.

Reading about the Traditionalists yesterday, it struck me how human destinies can flow in such different directions from similar plateaus. I can well imagine Huxley et al becoming authoritarian Traditionalists. Huxley, like many modernists of his generation, was an aristocratic elitist – whenever he writes about bourgeois or proletarian mass culture, he invariably uses the word ‘squalid’. He and Gerald Heard often wondered if the perennial philosophy was suitable for the many, or just the initiated few. They pondered this in the 1950s and 60s with regard to psychedelics (Huxley decided they should just be for the intelligentsia). Heard, who in his last years became a guru to wealthy libertarian CEOs, suggested that spiritual education should focus on an elite – whom he called the ‘neo-brahmins’ – who could then rise to power and influence. Particularly during World War 2, one finds the same note of deep cultural pessimism in Huxley and Heard’s writings as one finds in Guénon and Evola.

Why, then, did the mystical expats not become gloomy quasi-fascist Traditionalists? One reason is surely California. While Guénon was fulminating in a Cairo bedsit, Huxley and his gang were picnicking with Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin in the Hollywood Hills. They were living in gorgeous pads in Santa Monica. They were having too much fun to be fascist. Maybe the LA weather made them cheerier. Or maybe they found a culture more hospitable to their ideas – they were on the radio, on TV, lecturing away on campuses and at places like Esalen. Perhaps that gave them an optimism in human potential.

Another reason is Huxley and Heard had more faith in scientific progress than Guénon, who thought the urge to quantify everything was a symptom of the Kali Yuga. Huxley and Heard thought psychology could shed new light on the human psyche, that new psycho-spiritual methods could be discovered and disseminated, new drugs discovered. They may be right, although quantified spirituality has all kinds of risks – both Huxley and Heard can be over-credulous in their faith in new research.

Whatever the many causes, their lives ran in a different direction, and they took a bet on democratic mysticism – mysticism for the many, not the few.

Today, more and more of us are perennialists – a quarter of adult Americans are ‘spiritual but not religious’, and 35% of American millennials. Yet we can still see how many different directions a tide can break. We can see that Bay Area spirituality can easily become elitist – we the 1% are the spiritual supermen, the rest of society is screwed, let’s move to New Zealand, or space. We see that the perennial philosophy can still become deeply pessimistic and quasi-fascist – Steve Bannon and other alt-righters sing the praises of Julius Evola (my dark namesake) and argue that western civilization needs to re-embrace spiritual wisdom before it is over-run by immigrants.

I feel a strain of cultural pessimism in me too. Are we in an age of cultural ascent, or cultural decline? I’d probably go with Guénon and say we’re in the Kali Yuga. Thanks to people like Watts and Huxley, we have a very wide spirituality, with more and more people practicing wisdom techniques from Stoicism / Buddhism / Hinduism etc. But the width of participation seems to come at the cost of the height of attainment – where are the saints? Where are the masters? Every guru turns out to be a sex-pest. And, like Huxley, I worry about over-population and the damage we are doing to the ecosystem. It seems more likely to me that this century will be one of cultural collapse than spiritual ascent.

Clearly, I need to move to California and cheer up. Anyway, width of participation in spirituality is probably more important than height of practice. If several million people learn a bit of wisdom and suffer a bit less, that seems good to me. The ascent of humanity is very slow, but we’re getting there, together.


Amy Dolley took the History of Emotions undergraduate module at Queen Mary University of London during 2017-18. In this post, one in a series of contributions by QMUL students to the History of Emotions blog, Amy introduces and explains the unfamiliar emotional state of ‘dépaysement’. 

Ever since I can remember I have been absolutely terrified of snakes. It’s not the most bizarre phobia – in fact, lovers of snakes are usually the ones to face more judgement – but it is definitely a severe one in my case. The exact reason why I detest the reptiles so strongly I cannot discern for sure. Perhaps it has something to do with an early experience of Sunday school Genesis teachings, which ingrained in my mind the association of snakes with Satan himself, or merely the understanding of the fatality just one bite can cause. Whatever the reasons, I have grown up extremely fortunate to live on an island where the beasts do not roam in the wild. That is, until recently.

After months of saving, myself and a friend travelled to Indonesia last summer. The moment I set foot on the warm and alien Indonesian ground, I felt an emotion that I was unable to articulate – one of excitement, nervousness, curiosity and insecurity. A few days into our travels, we found ourselves in a beautiful little village at the top of a mountain. It was here where a friendly local approached me with a mammoth snake draped around his shoulders and asked me if I wanted to hold it. If this had happened back at home, even in the comfort of a zoo, I would have certainly refused but, fuelled by this strange emotion I have just attempted to describe, I said yes. I was still terrified, but the new environment I found myself in seemed to enable me to step outside of my comfort zone and overcome my phobia.

So how do we describe this rush which pushed me towards a brief cuddle with one of my biggest enemies? The French have a word which encapsulates this emotion and is unique to their language: dépaysement. According to the Collins French-English Dictionary, this is a noun that refers to the feeling of disorientation that occurs when you find yourself in a country that is not your home. If we deconstruct the word, we can discover a little more depth to this definition. The French word pays translates as country, and dépayser means something like ‘to disorientate’. Many have speculated that dépaysement literally means ‘decountrification’.

Tiffany Watt Smith’s Book of Human Emotions, Wellcome Collection Images

In The Book of Human Emotions, Tiffany Watt Smith argues that this word is typically French, as “the French seem to be particularly intrigued by emotions to do with disorientation.” She then gives the examples of ilinx (the strange exhilaration that comes with causing chaos) and l’appel du vide (the frightening urge to leap to one’s own death) to affirm this claim. However, one doesn’t have to be French to experience dépaysement. Emotions that we recognise and that are similar to it include homesickness, nostalgia, and wanderlust, and we will look at examples of people from different countries experiencing dépaysement in a while.

One also doesn’t need to be aware of the term dépaysement and its meaning to experience it either. A lovely example of this is described by mother Mona Rasmussen who, in the Globe and Mail, describes her adopted eleven month old daughter experiencing dépaysement. Her baby, Grace, was born in China but moved to Canada with her new mother when she was a few months old. Rasmussen recalls Grace’s look of longing when a man next to her spoke in her mother tongue, and describes her as turning towards him “…the way a flower turns toward the sun.” Rasmussen believes her daughter was feeling dépaysement that day – a longing for her home country.

Dépaysement encompasses both positive and negative feelings, Wikimedia Commons

Although its definition does not label it as a positive or negative emotion, dépaysement has historically been regarded as the latter – the reasons for which we will explore in a moment. My purpose is to show how dépaysement can be a wonderful thing which enables us to overcome fears and discover a new side of ourselves, if it is embraced correctly.

André Gide’s L’Immoralise, Wikimedia Commons

Dépaysement has a strong presence in French literature, and – as aforementioned – has tended to be depicted as a negative emotion. Joseph Gerard Brennan’s study of three novels of dépaysement provides examples of popular works which have described it as sparking immoral behaviour: L’Immoralise, The Ambassadors and Der Zauberberg. André Gide’s L’Immoraliste, for example, tells the story of Michel, who travels to Algeria with his wife on their honeymoon. In this foreign land Michel discovers a “new self” and is described as descending into immorality, particularly because of his sexual encounters with young Arab boys.

Gerard explores the prominent theme of dépaysement in the three novels mentioned – all published in the early twentieth century – and this negative narrative of the French emotion also exists in other novels, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Similarly, these two stories describe the protagonists’ decent to savagery which occurs when they enter exotic lands.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Wikimedia Commons








Malinowski amongst the Trobriand Tribe, Wikimedia Commons



Whilst I disagree that dépaysement leads to an erosion of morality, its portrayal in literature does show how it has long been regarded as a negative emotion. However, the real danger in dépaysement that needs highlighting is the association of it with national identity. The renowned early twentieth-century anthropologist, Bronisław Kasper Malinowski, provides evidence of this in his various studies of indigenous cultures, most notably in Argonauts of the Western Pacific. In his book of anthropological essays, Transcendent Individual, Nigel Rapport demonstrates how Malinowski shows how European travellers have been overwhelmed by their encounter with dépaysement, and have resorted to racism to explain the feelings it brings. Malinowski describes this as a “continuous ethical conflict” and he should be celebrated for highlighting and attempting to dissolve this.

SS Great Eastern, Wikimedia Commons

This conflict was heightened by the remarkable improvements in travel that occurred a few decades prior to Malinowski’s career. Ships were beginning to sail around the globe, such as The Great Eastern, which could take 4,000 passengers from England to Australia and reached nearly every corner of the British Empire. A boom in railways and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also enabled more people to visit African and Asian colonies. More and more Europeans were experiencing dépaysement as they found themselves on unfamiliar soil, and the prevailing colonial attitudes at the time certainly resulted in an association with the feeling of unfamiliarity with an assumption that home really was the best place to be.

In her article, ‘Cats and Poets in Old France’, scholar Eve Drobot gives an insight into dépaysement’s reputation in France, claiming that “it has long been a negative notion to the French, a people whose sense of self derives traditionally from a sense of place.” Although this is a massive generalisation, Drobot is alluding to dépaysement’s potential to encourage imperialism. It is possible for one to visit a country foreign to them and, after sensing the dépaysement, blame the feeling of uncertainty on the country itself, and not homesickness. It also works the other way round – a strong sense of pride over home can hinder one from embracing dépaysement in a way that allows a positive and exciting adventure.

Pierre Loti, Wikimedia Commons

However, the history of dépaysement is not entirely dark and in the same article Drobot does admit that, in recent years, it has endured a new, optimistic approach, particularly in academic spheres. One individual who has shed a positive light on dépaysement is the French author Pierre Loti. He was a French naval officer who, in the late nineteenth century, documented his travels to various countries, including Tahiti, Japan and Senegal, and the word dépaysement crops up a lot in his work. He writes that his first experience of the emotion occurred when visiting family in France and, instead of discovering that dépaysement led to immorality or nationalism, Loti enjoyed the sensation. It is interesting that he does not deny that a degree of sadness does come with dépaysement, as he misses home, but he delights in this and writes about the joy and excitement it brings too. For Loti, the charm of dépaysement is found within the blend of feelings that it produces and his various works, such as Aziyadé, Le Désenchantées and Le Roman d’un spahi are a testament to this.

We can learn a lot from Loti, who strongly resented European imperialism. He shows how we should regard dépaysement as a form of wanderlust, not homesickness, and I encourage you to fully embrace the emotion when you next travel away from home. When asked on twitter what dépaysement means to her, Marie Thouaille writes that she regards it positively and enjoys the refreshing quality of being in a new environment.

If we approached visiting new places with this attitude, it would certainly aid the breakdown of divisions between cultures and nationalism whilst allowing the individual to experience something new – and potentially defeat a phobia! In his short 1982 New York Times article, ‘Discovering the Hidden Paris’, John Vinocur instructs travellers on how to deal with their feelings of dépaysement in Paris in particular, asking visitors to “…[embrace] its alienness, its exoticism and its vitality by running after what is both common and hidden.” There is certainly a vogue for foreign emotional words today, and I hope that dépaysement does not remain a fleeting fashion, rather it becomes a way of life which enables us to experience new places and, as a result, discover new aspects of our character.

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AmyDolley

Further Reading

Jean Anderson, “Dépaysements/Becomings: The Role of the Randell Cottage Writers Residence”, New Zealand Journal of French Studies, 35:2 (2014)

Lesley Blanch, Pierre Loti: Travels with the Legendary Romantic (Tauris, 2004)

Eve Drobot, “Cats and Poets in Old France: The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History”, The Globe and Mail (1984)

Joseph Gerard Brennan, “Three Novels of Dépaysement”, Comparative Literature, 22:3 (1970)

Jean-Michel Rabate, Writing the Image after Roland Barthes (University of Pennsylvania Pres, 2012)

Nigel Rapport, Transcendent Individual: Essays Toward a Literary and Liberal Anthropology (Routledge, 2002)

Mona Rasmussen, “A Piece of the Past”, The Globe and Mail, 2014

Stanley Walker Rockwood, A Comparative Study of the Works of Pierre Loti and Joseph Conrad (University of Wisconsin, 1929)

John Vinocur, “Discovering the Hidden Paris”, The New York Times (1982)

Clive Wake, The Novels of Pierre Loti (Mouton, 1974)

Tiffany Watt Smith, The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust (Profile Books, 2015)

A Bloody Shame

Dr Hetta Howes is a Lecturer in English at City University. After studying for her BA and MPhil at the University of Cambridge, she joined Queen Mary in 2012 to begin her doctoral thesis on the role of water as a literary metaphor in late-medieval devotional prose, currently being turned into a monograph: Transforming Waters in Medieval Devotional Literature. She is one of the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers for 2017/18 and is committed to communicating her research to a wider audience.

Lyrics crop up everywhere in medieval manuscripts, whether they are compiled as part of a verse collection or scribbled on spare leaves, crammed into the space between prose works and prayers. The forthcoming essay collection Middle English Lyrics: New Readings of Short Poems (edited by Julia Boffey and Christiania Whitehead) showcases the variety of forms and functions of medieval lyrics, from biblical paraphrases to lyric interventions in Chaucer. My own contribution to this volume spotlights a short lyric written by the Franciscan friar William Herebert in the fourteenth century. In it, I’m particularly interested in exploring the emotional side of lyrics. To put it another way, I’m interested in how medieval lyrics might teach their readers how to feel.

Unknown Artist, ‘Minstrels with a Rebec and a Lute’,
13th Century, Manasseh Codex, El Escorial, Madrid

The later Middle Ages saw a craze for a new kind of text: the Passion meditation. (I have previously written for this blog about the connection between Passion meditations, women and water). These guided meditations not only describe events from Christ’s life, Passion and death but ask the reader to imagine themselves as either a witness or active participant in those events. So the reader is encouraged to imagine watching Christ being flogged, or struggling with the heavy load of the cross as the crowds taunt and jeer him. But they may also be urged to become a part of the action; to go and wipe Christ’s brow, or to wash and kiss his feet. Moreover, they’re encouraged to feel a myriad of emotions – awe, dread, pity, shame, sorrow. In this way, a more personal, intimate and emotional relationship with Christ is fostered. Whilst these Passion meditations are usually found in prose works of spiritual guidance (often, if not exclusively, targeted at women) the techniques of the genre can also be seen at work in medieval art – evocative images of a bleeding, suffering Christ – and in other forms of writing, such as medieval lyrics.

Fra Angelico and Assistants, ‘Meditation on the Passion, The Man of Sorrows with
Instruments of the Passion with the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Thomas Aquinas’, Italian, c.1441-1442, Florence, Convent of San Marco

In a fifteenth-century carol the narrator, who remains unmoved by scenes from Christ’s Passion, hears a woman weeping. He quickly discovers that she is, in fact, the Virgin Mary. Seeing her tears of grief he tells her that he cannot cry, for he is so ‘harde hartid’ (hard-hearted). She continues to weep, saying that nature must ‘move’ him, and by the end of the lyric the narrator is weeping himself, his heart softened by his interaction with Christ’s grieving mother. ‘Who cannot wepe come lerne at me’ is Mary’s repeated refrain. With it, she teaches not only the fictional narrator but also whoever might be reading or listening to the carol to soften their hearts, to allow Christ’s suffering to permeate. In this way, the lyric acts as a kind of ‘affective script’ (a phrase coined by Sarah McNamer, and which you can read more about here:

William Herebert’s biblical paraphrase of Isaiah, Quis est iste qui uenit de Edom? (Who is it that comes from Edom?), predates both this late-medieval carol and the craze for Passion meditations in the later Middle Ages. However, Herebert’s small but careful additions to his biblical source suggest that he is aiming not only to transform the Bible passages into verse but to use them to create a similarly affective script. His lyric is not only tailored to produce a particular emotional response in the reader but ultimately to help them convert that initial emotional response into a more productive, devotional state. The emotion? Shame. The devotion? Contrition and penitence.

The lyric is framed in the manuscript as a dialogue between a group of angels and the solitary figure of Christ, a doughty knight who enters the scene fresh from battle with blood-red garments, just like those worn by the treaders of a winepress. On the surface, the lyric seems to be engaged with the Old Testament idea of Christ-the-warrior, rather than the New Testament Christ, who suffers at the hands of his tormentors. However, whilst Herebert does stay close to his source (Isaiah 63:1-7), he also makes a number of embellishments which allude to the Passion, and introduce the idea of shame. He inserts a number of bloody details, noting the ‘grisliche’ (grisly) nature of Christ’s clothing. He emphasises Christ’s solitude after the ‘battle’ he has fought, reminding us that many witnessed it but no one went to help  – and in doing so he recalls Christ’s metaphorical battle during the Passion, for the redemption of mankind, which he fought alone.

Alongside these bloody additions, Herebert also amplifies the emotion of shame, which is only hinted at in the original biblical verses. The dialogue format of the lyric, between Christ and the angels, forces the reader or listener into the role of bystander. Medieval Christianity taught that by suffering the Passion, Christ redeemed the sins of all Christians – the sins of those living afterwards, not just of those living before. Many medieval texts, therefore, imagine the everyday sins of medieval Christians rewounding, or even recrucifying Christ, long after the historical event itself. The reader’s role in Herebert’s lyric is to stand by and watch the action unfold – there is no opportunity to imagine running to Christ’s aid, to involve themselves in a way that might alleviate their own shame in bringing about the Passion through their sins. They must stand, watch, and feel the full force of their emotion.

Anonymous, ‘The Crucifixion with St Bridget in Adoration’ 1495-1510, The British Museum

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The final lines of the lyric encourage the reader to move on from their emotional shame and to convert it into something more productive:

‘On Godes milsfulnesse                   mercifulness

Ich wole by-thenche me,                  I will bethink me

And herien Him in alle thing           and praise; everything

that He yeldeth me.’                        grants

Reader/listeners are prompted to feel shame. Crucially, however, they are also prompted by the final lines to pursue a proper outlet for this emotion, one that is scripted for them by the penitential Jews: mindfulness of Christ, his victories and his sufferings, followed by contrition and penitence. The emotion must come first: it is the catalyst. But the emotion shouldn’t be wallowed in; the reader shouldn’t become ‘adreynt in shennesse’ (drowned in shame) but should use their emotion to propel constructive devotional practice.

Paying attention to lyrics such as Herebert’s Quis est iste qui uenit de Edom can help to reveal just how aware of emotion, and its devotional potential, medieval authors actually were. Herebert recognises the importance of shame, as a catalyst for devotion, whilst remaining alive to the fact that wallowing in that emotion might metaphorically drown a reader. He artfully elicits emotion in his reader, whilst also encouraging them to put that emotion to good use by encouraging a reflection on sin in both personal prayer and confession. In his rendering of this popular biblical verse, Herebert, therefore, doesn’t just teach his reader what to feel, but also how to feel.

Middle English Lyrics: New Readings of Short Poems, ed. Whitehead and Boffey (Cambridge: forthcoming September 2018)

My essay, and the lyric itself, can be found in ‘‘Adreynt in shennesse’: Blood, shame and contrition in Quis est iste qui uenit de Edom?’ is forthcoming in Middle English Lyrics: New Readings of Short Poems, ed. Christiania Whitehead and Julia Boffey (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer; forthcoming September 2018). The lyric can also be found in The Works of William Herebert, ed. S. R. Reimer (Toronto, 1987), p. 132, no. 16


What to do in a spiritual emergency

Last month I organized an event on ‘what to do in a spiritual emergency’ –you can see videos of the talks here. Three of my friends spoke bravely and lucidly about their own experiences – psychotherapist and film-maker Anna Beckmann, poet and transformational coach Louisa Tomlinson, and Tai-Chi teacher Anthony Fidler – and Dr Tim Read, a wonderfully wise and compassionate psychiatrist, gave us his perspective. It felt great to talk openly and sympathetically about still feels quite a taboo topic – spirituality in general is a bit of a dirty word in the very secular UK (especially in academia), and spiritual crises are even less often discussed.

I wrote about this topic in The Art of Losing Control, and it’s become particularly important to me after the mini-crisis I had last year, following my ayahuasca retreat. A friend referred to it as a ‘breakdown’ this week, which didn’t feel quite right, because it was also something beautiful and healing.

So what does ‘spiritual emergency’ mean exactly, and what can we do when they occur?

There is an overlap between spiritual / religious / ecstatic experiences, and psychosis. Psychiatry has historically viewed all religious experiences as pathological, labelling them ‘hysteria’, ‘ego-regression’ or ‘psychosis’ and ignoring any positive aspects. That’s partly because psychiatrists have tended to be anti-religious secular materialists, battling the church for authority over the care of souls.

However, some psychologists (and a few psychiatrists) have suggested an experience can be both spiritual and quasi-psychotic. This ‘transpersonal’ perspective was put forward by psychologists and thinkers like Frederic Myers, William James, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass and Stanislaf Grof – who coined the term ‘Spiritual Emergency’ and brought out an excellent anthology with that title in 1980.

A spiritual emergency involves the sudden collapse of one’s habitual ego and customary sense of reality, and an opening to a different reality (which one could call the subconscious, or the archetypal layer, or the dream-world, or alternatively the Self or God – it’s a movement both downwards and upwards). It can involve a powerful sense of connection to all things, perhaps a transcending of time, space and matter, and a deep sense of meaning and awe. And it can also be extremely messy, painful, terrifying and dangerous, and have psychosis-like features like mania, ego-inflation, insomnia, voices, visions, ontological uncertainty and emotional disturbance. But unlike a psychotic illness, it can be a transition to growth, if handled sensitively.

Anthony told us: ‘It’s easy to get an idea of the life journey as a tidy evolution. But there’s another way humans grow, through revolution. The personality structure that’s evolved through childhood builds up like a building. And at some point in life it can be healthy for that to collapse. It can be a moment of growth, a journey forwards. But it doesn’t look like that. It looks like a piece of shit.’

Anna told us of her experience in her twenties:  ‘It was the most horrifying experience I ever had, and also the most awesome.’ Louisa said: ‘A spiritual emergency is when there’s an opening between the two worlds – the spiritual and the material – but it happens without maps or guides. What could be a successful integration into a larger self and reality becomes instead intensely terrifying, a failed initiation, which instead of leading to transformation, leads to fragmentation and sometimes to annihilation.’

What are the triggers?

Both Anna and Louisa spoke of how unresolved trauma was a trigger for their spiritual emergencies. For me too, the turbulence I felt after my ayahuasca retreat was partly a resurfacing of trauma from my late teens and early 20s. Trauma seems to create an ego structure that is more prone to what Tim Read calls ‘high archetypal penetrance’ (HAP) states – the subconscious and the transpersonal or spiritual dimension gets through the cracks easier.

There may also be a genetic predisposition to altered states – you might have some genes in your family that predispose you to schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, which make you schizotypal without necessarily developing into a psychotic disorder. One notes that in some cultures, shamanism is considered an inherited ability, as are psychic powers – a tendency to absorption or dissociation gets passed through the genes, and this can lead to creativity and insight as well as disturbance, eccentricity and illness.

More immediate triggers include being physically isolated from one’s friends and family. My crisis occurred when I was in South America, Lou’s when she was alone in Dartmoor, Anna’s when she was in New York, Anthony’s when he was in China. Tim has written about a near-crisis he had while travelling in India. Such crises can occur at moments of difficult transition – going to university, say, or breaking up from a long-term relationship.

And then there are triggers like not eating or sleeping properly, or going on a spiritual retreat, or taking drugs. Tim says he has often encountered people who’ve had spiritual crises after attending spiritual retreats – he writes about this in his excellent book Walking Shadows: Archtypes and Psyche in Crisis and Growth, and notes that retreats often shift people’s egos but fail to help them integrate their experience in the days and weeks afterwards.

What does a spiritual emergency feel like?

Both Lou, Anthony and Anna spoke of a feeling of ego dissolution accompanied by physical dissolution – they felt they went out of their bodies, and the material world seems to dissolve. I had a similar experience on ayahuasca, as many do. It is terrifying, because you don’t know if you’ll come back, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to experience that for several days or weeks. But I wonder, too, if this dissolution of the ego and material reality is an insight into the actual nature of things – Buddhists say we perceive the world as made up of separate solid things (me, the table) where actually there is a continuum of energy. Buddhist monks try to get to a state where you go beyond the perception of solid things. But it is terrifying if that happens when you’re not ready for it.

The Rebel Powers That Do Thee Assay by Charles Sims

There’s also a collapse of boundaries – between the self and other people (can you read my thoughts, can I pick up your feelings and thoughts?); between you and the world (‘I can control traffic lights or even world events with my mind, it’s all connected to me’); between dream and reality. Anthony suggests we have at least two types of consciousness – a movie camera that projects waking reality, and a movie camera that projects our dreams. And in psychotic episodes, these two movies overlap, so the mythical movie of the dream-world gets superimposed on reality. Both Anna, Lou and Anthony had strong archetypal aspects to their experiences – religious imagery, messages, a sense of cosmic significance to their thoughts and acts. There can be intense surges of energy, powerful gusts of emotion, lights, visions, voices.

And there’s a deep ontological uncertainty. Anthony says he didn’t know if he was dead, or in some sort of altered bardo state. That was the same for me – for a week, I couldn’t work out if I was dreaming or in the afterlife. In Tim’s book, some of his case studies also don’t know if they’re dead or in heaven. It’s common on powerful psychedelic experiences to think you’re either dead or about to die. The ego interprets its dissolution as actual death. You find yourself still conscious and in some reality, but you can’t take anything for granted about how it works. In psychological terms, it’s a profound de-automatization. Your habitual automatic expectations of reality are dissolved. I would get on a plane and wonder if it would really take off or not, as if I somehow had to will it to take off (it was my dream – I was making it all happen).

What helps?

In his book, Tim Read emphasizes the importance of ‘set, setting and integration’ for navigating this sort of spiritual turbulence. This is also one of the main conclusions of my book, The Art of Losing Control.

Set refers to the mind-set one brings to the moment. In ecstatic states of consciousness – like psychedelic consciousness – our mind becomes extremely sensitive. It can swing from euphoria to terror in a moment. So you need to foster certain attitudes, above all mindfulness. Don’t worry about the past or future, focus on what is happening now. We need to try to remember ‘I’m in a spiritual crisis’ or ‘I’m tripping’ rather than get swept away by the powerful thoughts and sensations. Feel whatever you’re feeling, and observe it without attachment or aversion.

The breath is very important for this. It grounds us in the present moment, it relaxes our emotions, and it connects us to our body. Lou speaks of the ‘silvery chord of my breath’ being the only thing that connected her to her body and to physical reality. Someone once said we’re spiritual beings having an in-the-body experience – we need to connect to the body, enjoy this sensual material reality (nature is good for this too, so are hugs). It was also hugely important for me, in moments of panic, to breathe slowly, and remind myself ‘this will pass’.

A second important attitude is humility – not giving way to ego-inflation and Messianic grandiosity. Anthony says: ‘If you think you’re Jesus or the Buddha, that’s OK. But you’re also this person. And if I’m the Buddha, so are you.’ You have a glimpse of the infinite Self within you. But it’s within everyone, not just you. Relax. Don’t take yourself or the experience too seriously. You’re not controlling the universe. Have a sense of playfulness. Anthony talks about having an open and curious attitude to one’s experience – what does it feel like? How does this reality behave?

Third, we need to take care of ourselves. Yes, you’re the infinite cosmos, but you’re also this particular being in this particular body. Have patience and compassion for your ego and body. Look out for yourself – make sure you eat and sleep, don’t put your body in danger. Be polite, pay for things, even if you think it’s all a dream. Self-compassion is the key – even when I felt very alone and frightened, I rooted for myself. I was on my side, no matter how much the volatility swept away my tidy life-plans.

Painting by the sectioned artist Louis Wain

Secondly, setting is crucial. It helps if you have loving, understanding friends to support you while you are ‘transitioning’. When I came back from South America, I couldn’t tell what was real, I could barely understand conversations, and luckily my friends were there for me, and weren’t freaked out, because they’d had similar experiences (Lou is one of my best friends).  I loved getting hugs from my friends, I loved stroking my brother’s dog and cat, I loved sitting by his fire – I grounded myself in love and touch. Getting out into nature was also really healing for me. I avoided seeing people who wouldn’t get what I was going through.

Third, integration is very important. I came back to this reality within a week or so, but worked on the integration for several months, and am still working on it. I started seeing a therapist who is open to the transpersonal perspective. I found a community where I could practice meditation with others. There are also communities like the Spiritual Crisis Network and the Hearing Voices Network which offer support.

Sadly, western psychiatry is often the worst setting or integration process for this sort of experience. As Tim told us, most psychiatry is meaningless – it doesn’t accept that these sorts of experiences could have meaning, could be a stage in a person’s growth. Tim writes: ‘the medical intervention often serves to entrench stasis and impede growth’. Anna really wanted support during her crisis, but was terrified of being locked up and treated as totally mad. She was lucky, probably, not to be sectioned – most secure psychiatric wards are horrible, harsh, loveless and soulless places. Tim, who led the Emergency Psychiatry Service at Royal London Hospital, writes: ‘It is one of the great tragedies of psychiatry that our most vulnerable people are placed in the most unsuitable settings.’

And western culture is also rather an inhospitable and even hostile setting for such experiences – we don’t talk about them, and we see messy breakdowns as awful, shameful and frightening, something to hide away, rather than potentially something painful but wonderful, like giving birth!

However, just as there is a risk of materialist fundamentalism, there is also a risk of religious or spiritual fundamentalism – Anna talks about how she would feel these ecstatic experiences and hunger for them, but she came to see this was a way of bypassing her pain. We can use our spiritual experiences as ways of not dealing with this reality, this body, this life with all its messiness. Tim Read writes about one case study of spiritual narcissism, a young man who focused so exclusively on his spiritual experiences that he lost the capacity to negotiate this world. We need to balance our life in this world with our yearning for the transcendent, so we don’t become a ‘total space-cadet’ as one ayahuasca facilitator put it to me. We also need to be open to ambiguity and uncertainty, to sometimes not knowing precisely where we are on the path.

None of this is meant to deny that there are psychiatric illnesses which are mainly physical in origin, and which are not transitions to higher selves. I also know that, for some people, psychiatric medication is helpful and even life-saving. And sometimes being sectioned is necessary to protect people and society.

Tim and I are now going to put together a book of people’s first-person accounts of spiritual experiences, to answer the questions – what are they like from the inside, and what did people find helpful? The focus is on the practical things that help people, the set and setting. If you’d like to contribute, more details can be found here.

Finally, I wonder what these experiences say about the nature of reality and God. I think evangelical Christians can have a naïve view of God and the tidiness of religious experiences. You meet Jesus, who is totally loving and good for you, and instantly both this life and the afterlife are better. In fact, spiritual awakenings often feel like death, and can totally mess up your life. They’re closer to the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Burning Bush and the Book of Job, the God who turned Nebuchadnezzar into a beast and made Ezekiel lie on his side for 430 days.

What does it say about God, or the Self, that sometimes spiritual awakenings can destroy a life, can actually lead people to starve themselves or jump off a building in their search for transcendence (two instances mentioned in Tim’s book).

To me it suggests that sometimes the dissolution of the ego and the opening to the Self is incredibly rough, sometimes fatal. It can be a confrontation with a Shiva-like god – the cosmic creator and destroyer. It makes me hope that reincarnation is real, so we can hope that, while the archetypal call of the Self is sometimes harmful and even fatal to the individual, eventually, over many lives, we move towards the light. Or maybe God / the Self / the Tao doesn’t care about individuals, only the awakening of the species. Or maybe there is no God. Even if there isn’t, we can still help people navigate these rough moments of ego-dissolution, so that they can move towards positive and fulfilling lives, as Lou, Anthony, Anna and I have done.

Tim and I are now co-editing a book of first-person accounts of spiritual emergencies, with a focus on what practical advice can we share for people going through them. Find out more, and submit your synopsis for a chapter, here

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake


Tom Lee recently completed the History of Emotions undergraduate module as part of his history degree at Queen Mary University of London. In this post, the first in a series of contributions by students to the History of Emotions blog, Tom reflects on loneliness as an emotional state, past and present. 

A few weeks ago, I was disturbed by a loud banging coming from outside my flat. Living on an estate in central London, random noise isn’t a rare occurrence, but this felt somehow different. No-one had seen Phil, my neighbour, for a couple of days – not unusual in itself as despite (or perhaps because of) living physically close to each other, we all tend to keep ourselves to ourselves – but pensioner Phil had been facing some serious health issues, and the noise was coming from his flat.

Poking my head out of my door, to be joined by those of the other neighbours on my floor, I saw the police smashing open Phil’s door, battering it with the same ram they would use when raiding a drug dealer’s den. We instantly all knew what had happened – the details confirmed to us a few minutes later. At some point in the previous 48 hours Phil had fallen, and in his weakened state he had died where he lay, alone.

The violence required to enter his home seemed incongruous with his gentle, calm and friendly nature. Phil’s front door hung from its hinges and next to it you could see the straw fedora that he always wore hanging on a coat hook (he was a stylish man!). Phil had no relatives that we were aware of, and apart from the occasional conversations he would have with some of us – displaying a genuine interest in our lives – very few social interactions. The council would hold his body for up to ten weeks while trying to locate any family, meaning any funeral or memorial was left in limbo. By that evening his door had been repaired and padlocked, with most residents in our block returning home oblivious of any of the events that had taken place there. It all seemed like a bleak, sad and lonely end to a life lived just a few metres from mine.

Living and dying alone, virtually unnoticed, in the centre of a huge bustling metropolis, the solitary nature of Phil’s death (and life) seemed to exemplify modern, urban, loneliness. This is a growing epidemic, one that murdered Labour M.P Jo Cox had highlighted, inspired by her own experiences of isolation. The seriousness of this emotional state resulted in an anti-loneliness commission being set up in her name, and a formal governmental response that includes a ‘minister for loneliness’, specifically appointed to tackle the issue.

Loneliness, we are told, is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice as harmful as obesity, affects one in four of us and can increase the chances of early death by 20%. While Britain has been voted the loneliness capital of Europe, the rest of north-west Europe, North America and Japan report similarly high levels. Japan even has an anti-loneliness industry, with anti-loneliness cafes, hugging chairs and fake friends for hire as means to ease some of these negative effects.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942. Wikimedia Commons

The causes of modern loneliness seem logical – as urbanisation slowly shifted populations from smaller, tighter, rural communities into more anonymous city existences, social ties and support systems broke down, and incidences of loneliness increased. Mid-twentieth century artists such as Edward Hopper captured this atmosphere of loneliness in the modern metropolis. His 1942 piece Nighthawks is perhaps the most well-known example. Three customers sit in a late-night diner on an empty New York street. In true urban style, they don’t appear to be interacting, looking at or even acknowledging each other’s presence. Even the waiter is busying himself with his own tasks. As a viewer you are placed outside, also separated and removed from the subjects inside. Hopper later admitted that ‘unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city’.

The Beatles Eleanor Rigby also depicts this condition of urban loneliness, as experienced in post-war Britain. Written in 1966 its themes seem particularly relevant to this article. Its ongoing resonance has resulted in a commemorative statue, and a bidding war for the deeds of a Liverpudlian grave belonging to an Eleanor Rigby, despite Paul McCartney’s insistence that his protagonist was a fictional character.

Alongside changes in work patterns, family breakdowns, the rise of individualism, increased longevity, the growth of secularism and the emergence of social media, it is the unprecedented and dramatic rise of the single person dwelling, particularly prevalent from the mid-twentieth century, that has been particularly blamed for increasing incidences of isolating loneliness. Cities like Stockholm report that 60% of their households are now single-person dwellings, with parts of New York’s Manhattan approaching a staggering 94%. Articles abound that study this contemporary phenomena of lone living, but as historian K.D.M Snell points out, historical studies on loneliness itself are few and far between – and that in order to properly address it as a serious social issue, historical perspectives are crucial.

Prior to the late 18th century, ‘lonely’ wasn’t a subjective emotional state, but instead a means to describe isolated places rather than people. While the OED defines the word ‘loneliness’ as ‘the condition of being alone or solitary’, and places it as emerging at the end of the sixteenth century, its root word ‘lone’, meaning a state of being ‘without company’ precedes this by three centuries. For the OED actually feeling lonely – the negative ‘sense of…dejection arising from want of companionship or society’ – appeared in the 19th century. The timing of this shift, from an objective state of ‘aloneness’ to a painful and unwanted emotional reaction to it, aligns with historian of the emotions, Tiffany Watt-Smith’s mid-century positioning of it as reflecting the social dislocations of the period. She also acknowledges that the physical proximity of others does not necessarily limit incidences of loneliness. Modern urban loneliness can occur when surrounded by people, and the mid-Victorian era was when this experience was first reported.

Yet the idea that loneliness is a uniquely modern emotion doesn’t quite sit right. The emotional state of loneliness – experiencing the distress that estrangement, rejection or the painful awareness of separateness from others can cause – can be seen in literary representations going back centuries, even if the word itself is rarely used. The revenge of Frankenstein’s monster was partly motivated by a powerful desire for companionship: ‘I am an unfortunate and deserted creature; I look around and I have no relation or friend on earth’. A hundred years earlier and Robinson Crusoe’s near thirty years of isolation was also marked by a need for social interaction – for just ‘one fellow-creature, to have spoken to me and to have conversed with!’. The Wanderer, an old English poem found in the 10th century Exeter book (but likely to have been composed much earlier), is an elegiac meditation on loss, and the loneliness of the exile. It uses wintery images as metaphors for the isolation, melancholy and depression caused by the loss of home and kin. For the speaker, a warrior who refers to himself as ‘the friendless one’, ‘there is none living to whom I dare clearly speak of my innermost thought’. While the word ‘loneliness’ isn’t used, even in modern translations, it is clear that this is the emotional state he is experiencing.

Robinson Crusoe (1898), C.E. Brock. Europeana Collections

These examples of exiled, marooned or alienated characters suggest that loneliness is an involuntary state, contrasting with the idea of solitude – something people can choose to seek out. While existing alone during the prehistoric, ancient and early modern periods could often be a physically dangerous condition – made vulnerable to life’s ravages by a lack of social sustenance – the opportunities for lone living were also limited. Unless pursuing religious or spiritual solitude, extended family, community and kin provided essential physical and emotional support for many. Choosing to be alone could in fact provoke suspicion. Writing in 1677, diarist John Evelyn felt that solitariness could ‘dissolve’ the world – threatening the very existence of life – as it ‘produces ignorance, renders us barbarous, feeds revenge, disposes us to envy, creates witches and dispeoples the world’.

Seeking out solitude as part of a spiritual life crosses many cultures and historical periods. The rishis of Vedic India, the Sibyls of ancient Greece and various Christian ascetic hermits all valued the power of ‘aloneness’ as a means of initiating transformative spiritual experiences.

St Paul, the first hermit (not looking that ‘alone’!) Wellcome collection

Introspection and melancholy were prized emotions for some British elites of the Georgian period, but were not necessarily states they wished to experience personally. As a means of demonstrating their own elevated emotional capacities, a brief craze among 18th century wealthy landowners saw ‘ornamental’ hermits paid to live a solitary life in their gardens, often for years – an early forerunner for the garden gnome!

While being alone can lead to feelings of isolation, the element of choice connected to these examples of ‘aloneness’ is what defines and differentiates them from the involuntary state of loneliness.

It turned out that my neighbour Phil did have family. The council managed to locate them 6 weeks after his death. It also turns out that his brothers had been trying, for some time, to track Phil down. They wanted to reunite with him and their estrangement was actually something Phil had instigated, no doubt for a variety of reasons, several decades ago. His solitary life was not, it seems, something forced upon him, and his desire to live as he did, with minimal social interaction, was something he perhaps valued. His funeral was attended by many of his long-lost family, and by several people from his London existence who had known and appreciated his gentle nature and his occasional calm, unobtrusive interest in their lives. Phil’s death and life was not necessarily the lonely one that I had imagined. Instead of exemplifying modern, urban, and involuntary loneliness it was perhaps a choice that reflected his own desire for solitude and aloneness.

Visit Tom Lee’s website here

Follow Tom on Twitter: @pranava1008

Further Reading

Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, A Call to Action

Katie Hafner, Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness, NY Times

James Peacock, Edward Hopper: the artist who evoked urban loneliness and disappointment with beautiful clarity

George Monbiot, The Age of Loneliness, New Statesman

Ami Rokach (ed.) The Correlates of Loneliness (Sharjah: Bentham Science Publishers, 2017)

Tiffany Watt Smith, The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust. (London: Profile Books, 2016)

K. D. M. Snell, The rise of living alone and loneliness in history, Social History, 42:1, (2017),pp.2-28

Barbara Taylor, Are we more lonely than our ancestors? BBC


The mystical expatriates and the invention of Californian spirituality

Gerald Heard (left), Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda

Back in October I went on a 10-day ayahuasca retreat in the Peruvian jungle. While there, I picked up a little novel by Christopher Isherwood called A Single Man. I don’t know why I picked up that particular book. Perhaps because it was slim, so I could finish it while at the retreat. Also, all the other books in the retreat’s soggy jungle bookshelf looked dreadfully New Age. So I took Isherwood back to my jungle hut, and read his book in a day or so, swinging in my hammock.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George, an ageing English lecturer at a Californian university, who is coping with the death of his lover, Jim. It’s like a queer Mrs Dalloway. I particularly enjoyed its exploration of the self, or rather, the multiple selves we are throughout the day, and the multiple levels of consciousness we shift through – hence the irony of the title.

When George awakes there is no George, just an awareness – ‘that which has awoken lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I’ – and then the central cortex, ‘that grim disciplinarian’, kicks in and tells the body to get up. It gets dressed and becomes a He, with a name. George drives down the freeway to the campus and goes into a sort of highway hypnosis, and then arrives:

In ten minutes, George will have to be George, the George they have named and will recognize…He is all actor now…hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands.

And so on, through the banal and funny encounters of the day – lecturing George, George on too much coffee, George at the gym, drunk George, horny George trying to pick up a boy. It’s all deftly observed, and it fitted strangely with what I was experiencing on ayahuasca – the many levels of self, right down to the deep consciousness where there is no ‘George’, and we are all perhaps connected. There is a quiet mysticism implicit in A Single Man, a searching for that which remains when all our costumes have been removed.

A month or so after the ayahuasca retreat, I felt the urge to read more Isherwood. I knew he’d written the stories which the musical Cabaret was based on, so I read Goodbye to Berlin, and enjoyed that too. After that, I started to find out about his extraordinary life, and his vast, glittering network of friends and lovers.

What interests me most about Isherwood is his relationship to Indian spirituality, and to Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. These three were nicknamed the ‘mystical expatriates’ by another mystical expat, Alan Watts.

All four were key figures in the development of the Californian counter-culture – to them (among others) we owe its embrace of eastern spirituality, its championing of the ‘perennial philosophy’ (everything except Christianity), its veneration for psychedelic drugs as spiritual technologies, its combination of science and religion into an empirical spirituality and evolutionary mysticism, its rejection of Christian notions of sin, and its unabashed celebration of the body and sex to create an ‘embodied spirituality’ that is by now familiar to us. They also began to sketch out a new politics of spirituality and map for society – it’s still nascent, but may become more important in coming decades.

The tabernacle of Californian spirituality was erected by the British ‘mystical expatriates’. Which is quite unlikely, considering that all four were public school-educated English gents, emerging from the stiff remains of the British Empire. Perhaps that’s the point – they, like me, were interested in ecstasy as a means of escaping from the uptight inhibitions of polite English culture. Ecstasy was a flight from Englishness.

Alan Watts

And if they could find that ecstasy at the feet of former subjects of the British Empire – all the better. Alan Watts, recalling his conversion to Buddhism while at boarding school, writes:

We were being trained as officers for the troops of the British Empire. So I went the Wrong Way, and espoused one of the major religions of the people ruled by that Empire.

In 1938, Heard and Huxley introduced Isherwood to a Hindu guru named Swami Prabhavananda, who set up the Vedanta Society of Southern California (Vedanta is a form of Hindu mysticism developed by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda). Huxley and Heard were too individualistic to remain his disciples – Heard set up his own commune for a few years, while both Huxley and Heard would later become mentors for Esalen, the hub of Sixties Californian spirituality.

But Isherwood stayed loyal to his guru his whole life, in his own way. He even tried, briefly, to be a novitiate, and moved into the Vedanta Centre full-time during World War Two, meditating and doing puja for several hours a day, much to the horror of the British literary establishment – it was one thing to become an Anglican like TS Eliot or a Catholic like Graham Greene, but to follow an Oriental guru? It was far less normal then than now.

He published an account of his spiritual journey at the end of his life, called My Guru and His Disciple. It got puzzled reviews and is not a big seller  compared to his novels, but I think it’s a fascinating book. It’s interesting because it’s so frank and unromantic about the spiritual life. Where Alan Watts basically bullshitted his way to guru status while secretly being an alcoholic and treating his wives like crap, Isherwood is totally upfront about his boredom, his frustration, his vanity, his sexual escapades, recounted in the entries of his diary:

Why am I joining these obsolete Hindus? What possible relevance can their beliefs have to the world of 1943?

What were all these agonies and struggles for?

Have I really got to spend the rest of my life with these people?

This place smells of renunciation, fog, and salad.

There’s nothing like a puja for stirring up lust.

We see the tension between his worldly ambition and his spiritual yearning – he wants self-transcendence, yet he also can’t bear the idea of losing his personality or changing his name to take on a Hindu name. ‘Christopher Isherwood’ is, after all, his greatest work of art.

There’s also an abiding tension between his desire for renunciation and his love of the body and sex. He’s constantly running off to shag Tennessee Williams, say, or to pick up a stranger on the beaches of Santa Monica. His guru always accepts him back – perhaps because his celebrity status made him so useful to the Vedanta movement (his translation of the Bhagavad Gita sold over a million copies, while his life of Ramakrishna was one of Steve Jobs’ favourite books).

His love of the world, sex and his self eventually won out. He left the Centre after the war ended, returning to his Hollywood life of writing, networking, boozing and shagging (his biographer estimates he shagged over 1000 men in his long life). He eventually settled down with a man thirty years his junior, and they lived in marital bliss for three decades. But he never lost contact with his guru, visited him for the rest of his life, and found solace in the thought of him in his final weeks.

Reviewers wondered what the point of the book was – he didn’t seem to have made much progress on the journey. Literary types can’t stand religious conversions, while New Agers want their spiritual tracts to be simplistic maxims from cartoon gurus like Alan Watts or Eckhart Tolle. Isherwood is far more conflicted than that. There is indeed something ridiculous about him practicing meditation in the hills of Hollywood as the Blitz rages – his diary reads:

August 13. Huge German air attacks on England. Invasion is expected hourly. I feel terribly depressed, but not frantic. It’s amazing how much my ‘sits’ help, however badly and unwillingly I do them.

In their collective escape from the Blitz, their shrugging off of the weight of the European Past, their denial of sin, and their joyful embrace of the Eternal Now, were the mystical expatriates abandoning their tribe at a time of crisis, and failing to face up to the suffering caused by the British Empire? Were they even continuing that Empire’s traditions of appropriation?

Maybe. On the other hand, Isherwood et al were doing important work. They were building a bridge between the West and Eastern spirituality: ‘To live this synthesis of East and West is the most valuable kind of pioneer work I can imagine – never mind who approves or disapproves.’

The mystical expats opened up new horizons for Western spirituality, which we all enjoy today. As Philip Goldberg writes in American Veda:

Their firepower, like the arsenal of a revolutionary vanguard, would radically transform the way large numbers of people understand and practice religion.

They helped to create the modern spiritual landscape, in which most Americans embrace a form of perennialism (ie the belief that Christianity is not the only path to God), in which contemplation has enjoyed its biggest revival since the Reformation, in which science and spirituality are seen as allies, and Indian religion has become so mainstream that Newsweek declared ‘we’re all Hindus now’.  They helped to democratize mysticism for the masses, so that half of Americans now claim to have had a mystical experience.

They gave people a new vocabulary for altered states and mystical experiences, and a new set of practices for getting there. Isherwood writes:  ‘I needed a brand-new vocabulary and here it was…untainted by disgusting old associations with clergymen’s sermons, schoolmasters’ pep talks, politicians’ patriotic speeches’.

While Heard and Huxley were scientifically-literate and developed the empirical mysticism or ‘neurotheology’ (Huxley’s phrase) which we see today in the science of mindfulness and psychedelics, Isherwood took himself as his own scientific experiment, a ‘specimen to be examined and classified’ using ‘the detailed skill and truthful approach of a scientific investigator’.

And, in My Guru and His Disciple, he gave us a wonderfully unvarnished account of spiritual mediocrity. As Pema Chodron says, we spend most of our spiritual lives in the middle – not completely lost, yet not completely saved. Just muddling through.

Blinded or Enlightened by Shame: Shame as a Motif in Julian of Norwich’s Writings

Louise Klinke Øhrstrøm is a Danish author and translator. She has translated Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love from Middle English into Danish (Boedal, 2010) and studied Julian’s texts at University of East Anglia (2011-2013).

Many readers may know the 14th-century-mystic and writer Julian of Norwich’s famous words from Revelations of Divine Love: “All shall be well”. Julian also phrases this notion another way: “and so schalle all schame turn in to wyrschyppe” (ST 758). Throughout her writings, she shows particular interest in what the emotion – or state – of shame does to man.

Although the word ‘shame’ only appears a few times in Revelations of Divine Love, a close reading of the figurative language of both the short and the long text suggests that shame is a key motif in Julian of Norwich’s literary work and in her theology. Exploring the ways in which Julian explicitly uses the words ‘shame’, ‘ashamed’ and ‘shameful’ in similar but also, at times, acutely different fashions, reveals that shame is presented as a complex and hybrid concept in Revelations of Divine Love. On the one hand, shame is described as a necessary part of accepting one’s guilt of falling into sin, which is “shameful” (LT 573). The sight of our sins is supposed to make us “ashamd of our selfe” (ST 619), recognising the “grete shame…[that we have] defoulyd the fair ymage of god” (LT 561). On the other hand, Julian underlines that there is no reason to be ashamed of our sins because God is able to turn any sin into worship, just like he did with biblical characters such as David, Maria Magdalena, Peter and Paulus who “are knowen in the Church in erth with her synnes, & it is to hem no schame, but is turnyd hem to worship” (LT 561). Julian repeats this point in several ways in Revelations of Divine Love such as “syn is na schame bot wiscippe to mann” (ST 756) and “ffor I saw full sekirly, that ever as our contrarioust werkyth to us here in erth peyne, shame and sorow ryth so on the contrariewise grace werkyth to us in hevyn, solace, worship & bliss” (LT 574).

According to Julian, we can look at ourselves in two ways, a higher and lower ‘beholding’. The higher makes us dismiss shame, while the lower encourages shame: “ffor the heyer beholding kepith us in Gostly solace & trew enjoying in God. That other that is the lower beholding kepith us in drede & makith us ashamyd of our selfe” (ST 623). Julian also states that the way in which God will transform sin into worship will leave all shame with the devil in the end: “for all that god sufferith him to doe turnith us to joye, & him to shame & wo” (LT 534). Thus Revelations of Divine Love Showing of Love presents a number of understandings of shame, which Julian touches explicitly on by using the word ‘shame’.

Tine Gjessø, The Sweet Eye of Pity and Love, 2018 (Inspired by Julian of Norwich)

However, it is through the figurative language in Showing of Love that Julian’s complex theorising of shame really unfolds and becomes a key motif in the texts. By using figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, allegories, parables, symbols, metonymies, examples and personifications, Julian performs shame in a literary way which engages the reader much more significantly than in the passages where ‘shame’ is explicitly mentioned.

The key metaphor when it comes to shame is “gastelye blyndehede” (ST 774), which Julian examines in many ways throughout Revelations of Divine Love. Julian mainly uses this metaphor for a condition where man is too ashamed to see God and thus cannot recognise his own worth as a loved creature. She also uses the metaphor to stress that shame can blind human beings in a way that hinders self-acceptance and blurs a clear understanding of life and other people. Mist is used as a simile that expresses this losing of sight too. According to Julian, “it makith as it were a thick myst aforne the eye of the soule” when we occupy ourselves too much with other people’s sins which results in that “we may not for the tyme se the fairehede of God” (LT 617).

Knowing that Revelations of Divine Love is based on a number of visions, it is not surprising that the contradiction of ‘being able to see’ and ‘being blind’ is important to Julian, and using these physical senses in a figurative way is clearly inspired by the New Testament where Jesus describes the Pharisees as “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14) and “blind guides” (Matthew 23:15).  However, the interesting point about Julian’s metaphor of “gastelye blyndehede” is that she uses it in a slightly different way than it is used in the New Testament. When Jesus criticises the Pharisees for being spiritually blind, he is criticising their focus on superficial rituals and material matters. Accusing them of having been blinded by pride, Jesus says: “Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:25-27).  While Julian also stresses that spiritual blindness implies delusions and is the main barrier between man and God, her focus is not on how pride blinds man, but on how shame blinds man.

Stating that “man is blindid in this life” (LT 580), and that “the blindnes that we have is of Adam” (LT 582), Julian refers to the shame that Adam and Eve felt in Eden after having eaten of the forbidden fruit. According to Julian, this shame still torments human beings; “we falyn ageyn into blindhede”, and we “arn made derke & so blinde that onethys we can taken ony comfort” (LT 585). She also uses “Adams old Kirtle” (LT 584) as a symbol of that shame and contrasts it to “the larghede of his [God’s] clotthyng” (LT 580) and the metaphor that God “is our clotheing that for love wrappith us, halseth us, & all beclosyth us for tender love – that hee may never leave us” (LT 519). Shame is, in other words, something which represents us, just like clothes do, but also something that we, potentially, can take off and ask God to replace with something better.

Both images, shame as spiritual blindness and shame as an old tunic, we find in The Parable of the Lord and the Servant in chapter 51 of the long text, which Julian presents as an essential part of Revelations of Divine Love by comparing it to an ABC when it comes to understanding God: “in this mervelous Example I have techyng with me as it were the begynnyng of an ABC where by I may have sum Vnderstondyng of our Lodis menyng” (LT 583). The parable shares similarities with the parable of the prodigal son from the Gospel of Luke chapter 15. A servant stands before his lord and is sent on a certain mission. Eager to please his lord, the servant not only walks but runs to fulfil the mission. Consequently, the servant falls in a slough and cannot get up. He “gronith & monith & walith, & writhith but he ne may rysen ne helpen hymself be no manner wey” (LT 577). The servant is in great despair. His tunic is dirty and torn apart. His body is heavy. He cannot turn his gaze to his lord.

In the following chapters, Julian interprets the servant as being Adam and as being Christ. Reading the servant as Adam, Julian implies that the servant’s agony and turning away is similar to Adam’s hiding in shame in the Garden of Eden. By emphasising that Adam is in all men, she also suggests that the human condition is this blindness and turning away from God in shame. When interpreting the servant as being Christ, she emphasises that Christ always had his gaze on the lord and adds another section to the parable where Christ is risen up from the slough, and where his dirty tunic is replaced with a white and shiny one. By stating that “we have in us our Lord Jesus uprysen, we have in us pe wretchidnes & pe mischefe of Adams ffallyng deyand” (LT 585), Julian concludes that we also have the potential to rise from our shame and have our dirty tunic replaced by a white one. In the long text, she uses several other metaphors to explain the key steps towards this transformation: We are to accept that we need “helyng” (LT 619) from our spiritual blindness, to receive compassion from our “Moder Criste” (LT 595) and to realise that “we be his Corone” (LT 584) and that “he made mans soule to ben his owen cyte” (LT 580).

Louise Klinke Øhrstrøm

Thus you could argue that Julian actually understands salvation as a process of discerning shame, recognising the fall (and the “constructive” shame) while rejecting the feeling of unworthiness (the “destructive” shame) and rising in dignity. Although Julian wrote her texts more than 600 years ago, this approach to shame seems rather modern and relevant in the context of recent shame studies that discuss the social functions of shame while paying attention to the way in which shame can also be “blinding”


ST (Short Text): The Amherst manuscript, BL Additional 37790, British Library, London

LT (Long Text): The MS Sloane 2499 manuscript, British Library, London

Edition: Julian of Norwich, Showing of love: Extant Texts and Translation, ed. by Sr. Anna Maria Reynolds and Julia Bolton Holloway (Firenze: Sismel, 2001)

Huautla, hippies and hongos

A mural in Huautla commemorating Maria Sabina

I’m travelling in Mexico, researching the indigenous culture of magic mushrooms, or hongos as they are called here. Last weekend, I visited Huautla de Jimenez, a town eight hours drive from Mexico City, in the state of Oaxaca. It’s a remote mountain town, mainly populated by Mazatec Indians who speak Mazatec and also communicate through whistling. This little town was where Westerners discovered magic mushrooms. It was the spark that started the fire of the psychedelic counter-culture in the 1960s.

I should say at the outset that I’m no Mexico expert, nor an anthropologist or ethno-botanist. I travelled with two historians of Mexico – Ben Smith of Warwick University and Nathanial Morris of Oxford – who are researching an AHRC project on the war on drugs. In the meantime here are my early impressions (I’ll correct my errors if you point them out).

There are records of Indian tribes taking mushrooms since at least the time of the conquistadors. Friars write disapprovingly of the Aztecs taking a substance they called teonanacatl, or ‘flesh of the gods’, in order to prophesy and discover the will of their gods – perhaps it was through mushrooms that they arrived at the uncanny prophesy that bearded men would come from the East and rule over them. They also took mushrooms for fun – there’s an anecdote of the Aztec aristocracy consuming them at a wedding dance.

Western ethno-botanists assumed that teonanocatl was peyote, which western scientists discovered was psycho-active in the 19th century. But in the 1930s, several scholars suggested it might be mushrooms instead – a theory finally proved in 1938 by famed ethno-botanist Richard Evans-Schultes, when he visited Huautla and identified the shrooms. He realized there are as many as 30 types of Mexican mushrooms which contain psilocybin, a psychedelic drug. The Mazatec Indians still consumed them in ceremonies called veladas, in which shamans called curanderas used them to cure people of illnesses, physical and spiritual.

In the 1950s, a New York banker called Gordon Wasson made numerous laborious journeys to Huautla, driven by a passion for mushrooms and a desire to become the first Westerner to consume the hongos. In 1955, he got his wish. A curandera called Maria Sabina allowed him and his photographer into a velada after Wasson made up a story about needing the hongos‘ help to cure his sick son.

He was amazed by the experience. ‘For the first time, the word ecstasy took on a real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.’ He drew on the theory of Aldous Huxley that psychedelics give one temporary access to the same mystical experience attained by religious virtuosos like St John of the Cross, and this experience lies at the esoteric core of all religions.

Although Wasson had said he would protect the secrecy of the sacred ritual, he sold the story and photographs of the velada for several thousand dollars to Life magazine, where a sub-editor coined the phrase ‘magic mushrooms’. He also gave enough clues in his writing for the curious to be able to identify the village as Huautla. His article, published in 1958, was a smash hit and opened the floodgates for an extraordinary influx of hippy spiritual-seekers in the 1960s, who camped outside Huautla. Initially, they sought out Maria Sabina for veladas, but soon the locals were selling them the mushrooms and they were taking them wherever and whenever they felt like it, in the day, in the fields and rivers, with other substances, even dancing naked in the streets, thereby breaking Mazatec taboos about the proper way to treat the sacred medicine.

‘They were something remarkable’, remembers Lleno, a Huautla local who was a boy in the Sixties. ‘With their long hair, crazy clothes and rock music, always saying ‘peace and love’. Some of the locals were scared of them, although they also influenced the culture here – young people started growing their hair and listening to rock.’ Eventually, the municipal president had enough and called in the army in 1969, who shipped out the hippies in buses. The arrival of the army changed the town forever, bringing the semi-autonomous Mazatec town under the control of the national government.

The Army booted out the hippies in 1970.

There are tall stories about all kinds of celebrities descending on Huautla during that brief mushroom frenzy – John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel – but we do know for sure that the psychologist Timothy Leary visited the town, took the shrooms, had a mystical experience, then returned to Harvard to establish the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which spread the gospel of psychedelics throughout western culture.

Leary and Wasson helped to shape the idea that psychedelics lead to a mystical, ecstatic experience, an experience of unitive consciousness beyond time, space and culture. This idea is still very influential in American psychedelic science – in 2006, American researchers at John Hopkins University started to study psilocybin again after a hiatus of 40 years, with a paper called ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences.’ This mystical experience of being one with all things helps free people from their habitual ego patterns and releases them – according to recent trials – from depression, addiction, even fear of death.

There’s much to celebrate in recent Western psychedelic research, but it’s problematic to claim that psychedelics always – or even usually – lead to mystical experiences of unitive consciousness. The problem with this theory, as cultural historian Andy Letcher pointed out in his book Shroom, is that it ignores the way different cultures treat psychedelic substances, and reduces the weird variety of freaky experiences people can have into one box, called ‘core mystical experience’.

The idea psychedelics take us to some mystical state beyond culture is itself culture-bound – it’s the product of the culture of American transcendentalism, of William James, and of Aldous Huxley’s perennialist mysticism. The participants in John Hopkins’ trials have mystical experiences partly because that’s what they’re expected to have –  the mind responds to the expectations and theories we bring to it, through what the philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘looping effects’. People in Pentecostal churches encounter the Holy Spirit because they expect to…and so on.

Other cultures frame psychedelic experiences in different ways, leading to different mental outcomes. The anthropologist Nicholas Langlitz has shown that European psychedelic laboratories, like those of Zurich and Imperial College, tend to be more secular and Freudian, and to use phrases like ‘ego-death’ or ‘psychosis-imitation’ rather than ‘mystical experience’. Participants in their labs obediently report fewer mystical experiences.

The Mazatec think about hongos in their own way. They naturally do not take mushrooms for an ecstatic release from the disenchantment of Western modernity. Sabina said: ‘Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.’ The mushrooms were a form of medicine for those without access to proper healthcare, let alone psychotherapy or psychiatry. ‘We didn’t take them out of curiosity’, says Florencio Carrera, an elderly former teacher in Huautla. ‘We took them out of necessity’.

Rather than an ecstatic connection to the cosmos, ‘ultimate Mind’ or some such lofty transcendental goal, the Mazatecs took (and occasionally still take) mushrooms to connect to local saints or local spirits, to help with local problems in their relationships, work or health. As David Luke of Greenwich University has put it, theirs is a horizontal transcendence, rather than the vertical individualist transcendence of Wasson, Leary, Huxley et al.

The Mazatec also have a different model of illness, believing that some illnesses or accidents are caused by sorcery, by external enchantment. You could claim, as some anthropologists do, that while Westerners think emotional problems are caused by trauma in their past which are resolved through acceptance and insight, Mazatecs are more likely to think emotional problems are caused by external events – curses by your enemies or offences against the local spirits – which are resolved through magic.

However, you can over-emphasize the differences between Mazatec and Western healing cultures. Today, one also notices some similarities.

I visited a local curandera called Profesora Elodia, who lives in a concrete bungalow on the outskirts of Huautla. As in a Harley Street surgery, I waited outside while Elodia finished a consultation with a local. Then Elodia guided me in to her tiny shrine room, sat me down, and asked how she could help. Like Wasson, I made up a story to get access, claiming I was suffering from low energy and poor sleep (I was half-worried she would misunderstand me and give me a herbal cure for impotence, leading to unintended results). She asked me to write down my name and birthplace, and then began to ask the spirits for help for Julian from the country of London. She said prayers to the saints in Spanish, and prayers in Mazatec too, perhaps to the local spirits or duendes. Then she rubbed an egg all over my body, pushed some pressure points, blew water in my face, sucked the air around me, lit a candle and said a prayer to protect me from my enemies. So far, so magical.

But she also offered therapeutic advice that wasn’t so far from what I’d be offered by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist or mindfulness life-coach. She told me to have faith in myself, to believe I can succeed in my work. She told me not to think too much about the past or future, but focus on the present. She spoke in parables – see how this water runs down the hill, be like that, let the past go. When I spoke a bit about family troubles, she told me not to let my parents’ problems ruin my life, or I’d transmit them to my own children.

I asked her about the mushrooms, and what they can do, and she said: ‘They help you realize things you haven’t been paying attention to, in your soul.’ Again, that’s pretty close to what you’d hear from psychedelic therapists working in western research labs. Rosalind Watts, an NHS therapist who works at Imperial College’s psychedelic lab, says mushrooms help you confront and accept your shadow – a Jungian term for the parts of the psyche you have ignored or repressed.

Local Mazatecs also spoke of how mushrooms helped them confront and integrate trauma from their past – Florencio said mushrooms helped him overcome emotional problems after he was in a car crash, while another lady (whose name I’ll keep confidential) told us that she first took mushrooms when she was 14 after a trauma: ‘Something bad happened to me and I needed help. It helps young people find a reason to live. It can be scary, especially if people have been raped. You feel very afraid but afterwards you feel better. You can let it go.’ Elodia said: ‘The mushrooms let you remove the weight you have been carrying and pick yourself up.’

Both Westerners and Mazatecs also speak of feeling more connected to nature through mushrooms – Maria Sabina spoke of how, when she first took mushrooms as an adolescent, she felt all of nature was filled with God and speaking to her. That’s not so far from a Western-style mystical experience. I don’t know to what extent contemporary Mazatecs have incorporated Western psychological concepts into their healing discourse. If so, it shows that cultures aren’t hermetically sealed, but leak into each other. Or perhaps certain healing mechanisms are universal – curanderos, like CBT or mindfulness coaches, emphasize the importance of concentration, discipline, integrity.

And most medical procedures rely at least partly on the faith and hope of the patient. ‘Those that believe are healed’, said Sabina. Sadly, she felt the mushrooms lost some of their power once the hippies had desecrated the secret ritual. She became something of a pariah in Huautla, although once she was dead she was almost canonized, and is now celebrated in a large statue of her standing on a mushroom as you enter the town. Florencio likewise laments: ‘The arrival of the hippies swept away the old ways, and the mysticism and magic of Huautla.’

It’s interesting to wonder if the same will happen with Western psychedelic medicine, as it goes from being the latest new wonder drug to something familiar, standardized and commodified. Even as rational a therapy as CBT no longer works as well as it did in the 1960s, when it was the new wonder therapy. Will the miracle results of psilocybin therapy level off in a decade or two?

Today, Huautla has mushroom regalia festooned all over the town in a bid to bring the tourists back, but we hardly saw any – the town is too far away from Mexico City or Oaxaca City. Instead, the new mushroom Mecca is San Jose del Pacifico, a tiny town of 700 people conveniently located on the main highway from Oaxaca City to the beaches of Puerto Escondido.

The first hippies arrived here in the early 70s, perhaps after having been booted out from Huautla – the locals say they arrived after a solar eclipse. They bought huts in the hills, and found a local curandero to sell them mushrooms. Gradually the village became a New Age hot-spot, offering tourists a menu of therapies like Reiki, hydrotherapy, sweat lodges and mushrooms. ‘The gringos mainly take them in the day, and wander in the forest or by the river’, says a local young woman. ‘Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they cry, sometimes they stare at trees. They don’t bother anyone.’ I asked her if the locals in San Jose ever take them. ‘Oh no’, she said. ‘Only the gringos.’