We should not be afraid of suffering. We should be afraid of only one thing, and that is not knowing how to deal with our suffering. Handling our suffering is an art. If we know how to suffer, we suffer much less, and we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the suffering inside. The energy of mindfulness helps us recognize, acknowledge, and embrace the presence of the suffering, which can already bring some calm and relief.
When a painful feeling comes up, we often try to suppress it. We don’t feel comfortable when our suffering surfaces, and we want to push it back down or cover it up. But as a mindfulness practitioner, we allow the suffering to surface so we can clearly identify it and embrace it. This will bring transformation and relief. The first thing we have to do is accept the mud in ourselves. When we recognize and accept our difficult feelings and emotions, we begin to feel more at peace. When we see that mud is something that can help us grow, we become less afraid of it.
When we are suffering, we invite another energy from the depths of our consciousness to come up: the energy of mindfulness. Mindfulness has the capacity to embrace our suffering. It says, Hello, my dear pain. This is the practice of recognizing suffering. Hello, my pain. I know you are there, and I will take care of you. You don’t need to be afraid.
Now in our mind-consciousness there are two energies: the energy of mindfulness and the energy of suffering. The work of mindfulness is first to recognize and then to embrace the suffering with gentleness and compassion. You make use of your mindful breathing to do this. As you breathe in, you say silently, Hello, my pain. As you breathe out, you say, I am here for you. Our breathing contains within it the energy of our pain, so as we breathe with gentleness and compassion, we are also embracing our pain with gentleness and compassion.
When suffering comes up, we have to be present for it. We shouldn’t run away from it or cover it up with consumption, distraction, or diversion. We should simply recognize it and embrace it, like a mother lovingly embracing a crying baby in her arms. The mother is mindfulness, and the crying baby is suffering. The mother has the energy of gentleness and love. When the baby is embraced by the mother, it feels comforted and immediately suffers less, even though the mother does not yet know exactly what the problem is. Just the fact that the mother is embracing the baby is enough to help the baby suffer less. We don’t need to know where the suffering is coming from. We just need to embrace it, and that already brings some relief. As our suffering begins to calm down, we know we will get through it.
When we go home to ourselves with the energy of mindfulness, we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the energy of suffering. Mindfulness gives us the strength to look deeply and gives rise to understanding and compassion.
Across college campuses and the corporate landscape, a big idea has taken hold: the notion that microaggressions – subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at minorities or other powerless people – can lower performance, lead to ostracism, increase anxiety, and sometimes cause so much psychological pain that the recipient might even commit suicide. Yet despite the good intentions and passionate embrace of this idea, there is scant real-world evidence that microaggression is a legitimate psychological concept, that it represents unconscious (or implicit) prejudice, that intervention for it works, or even that alleged victims are seriously damaged by these under-the-radar acts. It is entirely possible that future research will alter some of these verdicts. Until the evidence is in, though, I recommend abandoning the term microaggression, which is potentially misleading. In addition, I call for a moratorium on microaggression training programmes and publicly distributed microaggression lists now widespread in the college and business worlds.
Context is all-important here. Despite impressive societal strides, racial prejudice remains an inescapable and deeply troubling reality of modern life. As recently as 2008, 4 to 6 per cent of Americans acknowledged in a national poll that they would be unwilling to vote for any African-American candidate as president. And this deeply troubling figure might be an underestimate given the social undesirability attached to admissions of racism. Indeed, a growing number of scholars contend that prejudice often manifests in subtler forms than it did decades ago. From this perspective, prejudice has not genuinely declined – it has merely become more indirect and insidious. There could well be some truth to this possibility.
Enter the concept of microaggressions, those subtle snubs, slights and insults directed at minorities, as well as women and other historically stigmatised groups. Compared with overtly prejudicial comments and acts, they are commonly understood to reflect less direct, although no less pernicious, forms of racial bias. For example, in attempting to compliment an African-American college student, a white professor might exclaim with surprise: ‘Wow, you are so articulate!’ presumably communicating implicitly that most African-American undergraduates are not in fact well-spoken. Last year, Shaun R Harper, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, told an Intelligence Squared debate about meeting an African-American student whose engineering professor had expressed incredulity that he’d received a perfect score on an exam.
Few would dispute that these remarks, even if not malicious, are almost certainly callous. Prejudice undoubtedly manifests itself in subtle and indirect ways that have until recently received short shrift in psychological research.
Given this sort of backdrop, the microaggression concept has acquired traction in recent years. The Global Language Monitor deemed ‘microaggression’ the word of the year in 2015, in recognition of its sky-rocketing prevalence in everyday language. A popular Facebook page, The Microaggressions Project, was launched in 2010 to document instances of microaggressions and to demonstrate ‘how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent, and unsafe realities onto people’s workplace, home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and public transportation/space environments’. As of June 2017, a Google search for ‘microaggression’ and variants returned more than 700,000 hits.
Over the past few years, the concept of microaggression has made its way into public discussions at dozens, if not hundreds, of colleges and universities, with many institutions offering workshops or seminars to faculty members on identifying and avoiding microaggressions. In other cases, colleges and universities such as the University of California, Berkeley have disseminated lists of microaggressions to caution faculty and students against expressing statements that might cause offence to minorities.
Microaggressions, which impact workplace satisfaction, have captured the interest of the business industry, too. In response, a number of major companies, including Coca-Cola and Facebook, have recently provided training to employees to detect and avoid implicitly prejudicial comments and actions, including microaggressions.
All of these applications hinge on one overarching assumption: that the microaggression research programme aimed at documenting the phenomenon is sound, and that the concept itself has withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is not the case. Microaggressions have not been defined with nearly enough clarity and consensus to allow rigorous scientific investigation. No one has shown that they are interpreted negatively by all or even most minority groups. No one has demonstrated that they reflect implicit prejudice or aggression. And no one has shown that microaggressions exert an adverse impact on mental health.
I am hardly the first to raise questions regarding this body of research. Over the past few years in particular, the microaggression concept has been the target of withering attacks from social critics, especially – although not exclusively – on the right side of the political spectrum. These writers have raised legitimate concerns that concepts such as microaggression and trigger warnings (warnings to people regarding distressing material to come) along with so-called protective safe spaces can at times discourage controversial or unpopular speech, and inadvertently perpetuate a victim culture among aggrieved individuals.
My major concern is the rigour of the psychological science itself. In no way do I deny that subtle forms of prejudice exist and are becoming more prevalent in some sectors of society. Nor do I wish to discourage, let alone reject, research into implicit, or unconscious, prejudice. Nor do I contend that microaggressions don’t exist (even if a Breitbart story on my work claims the contrary). Instead, I contend only that microaggressions must be studied properly before we can claim to know their impact or the best ways of reducing the pain that they might cause. Good intentions are a start, but they are not sufficient…
…despite the obvious vital importance of feelings to the human condition, little can be found on the subject in modern and medical psychology textbooks. We are being held back by a structure that is ill-suited to our needs. What is needed is the energy and vision to support the emerging paradigm…It is clear that, as doctors, we need your help. –Dr. Robin Kelly, The Human Hologram
What Happened to the Doctors?
Something is drastically wrong with medical education as it currently stands1, and the effects flow into the professional arena. For decades medical students have been notorious for having abnormally high rates of illness, both physical and mental compared with the rest of the population. Depression is one problem that is well known. Dr Robert Mendelsohn stated in Confessions of a Medical Heretic (1979) that he saw a higher rate of illness in first year medical students than any other subgroup. At the time his book was published, medical students’ suicide rates in the US were reportedly second only to American Indian children who were sent away from their reservations to attend high school.
The sheer physical separation of many college/university students from their families and friends leaves them much more vulnerable to the adverse influence of teachers with agendas, toxic peer influence, and of course the pharmaceutical industry which controls medical education.
Problems in medicine are not restricted to medical students, however.
If today we doubt the value of the modern medical ethos and the effectiveness of current mainstream medical practice, we have decades of context backing us up and no shortage of statistics. Even as early as 1979, when Mendelsohn was eviscerating the medical profession for its brutality, incompetence, dishonesty, etc., the health status of the professional medical community (in the US) in itself was reason enough to doubt its methods. 1 in 20 physicians were deemed psychiatrically disturbed, more than 30,000 were alcoholics, and around 1% were narcotics addicts. A thirty year study concluded by finding that almost half of doctors were either divorced or unhappily married, over a third used drugs such as amphetamines, barbiturates, or others, and a third had suffered emotional problems severe enough to warrant a minimum of ten trips to a psychiatrist. Suicide rates for doctors were double the average for white Americans. For female physicians, the rate was four times higher than normal for women over age 25.[iii]
Is this what “healers” look like?
Mendelsohn attributed most of this disaster to the cutthroat moral and psychological climate of medicine, its power politics, bribery, and corruption. He believed that by the time students got to pre-medical training, they had already learned the cheating, vying for position, and competitive practices needed for medical school. He further pointed out that the admissions tests “virtually guarantee” that the students who do make it through will be bad doctors1, funneling through personalities that are autocratically leaning, and unable and unwilling to communicate with people, having the drive to succeed but not the integrity or will to rebel when they should.[iv]
Judging by the real-world results, it is clear that medical schools are geared to churn out automata-like drug and surgery pushers with few scruples, little nous, truant empathy, and no originality, who are willing to sell their humanity out to the Church of Modern Medicine. When you factor in that in 1979 the half-life of medical information/education was regarded as being a mere four years, you have the recipe for an autocratic and severely outdated profession (and industry) that is eminently resistant to important new information, truth, and, perhaps above all, change.
Student Stress and the Erosion of Empathy in Medicine
There has been some recent research done into the impact of medical training on undergraduates. The results are not flattering. In White Coat, Mood Indigo, an investigative piece by fourth year medical student Julie Rosenthal and her co-author Dr Susan Okie, we find that medical students are more prone to “depression” than their peers, with around 25% reportedly having it. Psychiatrist Laurie Raymond believes that students’ coping strategies and health worsen as they linger through medical school. They are overworked, stressed, socially isolated, and sleep deprived.[v]
Angela Nuzzarello, a psychiatrist and dean of students at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago comments that “all medical students aren’t sleeping.” “They are overwhelmed, they are working hard, and they aren’t having fun socially…Of course they are fatigued.”[vi] Is this how to create healers?
In a study by M. Hojat et al. called The Devil is in the Third Year: A Longitudinal Study of Erosion of Empathy in Medical School the question of empathy was investigated. The results:
…consistently showed no substantial change in empathy between orientation (year 0) and the end of year 2. However, a considerable decline in mean empathy scores occurred in the third year of medical school. No significant trend toward improvement in empathy scores was observed in the fourth year. The decline in mean empathy score from year 0 to the end of year 3 is greater than one-half standard deviation unit (0.54), which is considered substantial and practically important.
Conclusions: It is ironic that the erosion of empathy occurs during a time when the curriculum is shifting toward patient-care activities; this is when empathy is most essential.[vii] (emphasis added)
To repeat: right when medical students really need a good handle on empathy and “bedside manner,” they are reaching a point of stress and burnout that has significantly eroded their empathic capacities.
The coldness of many doctors and nurses has reached legendary proportions. The 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls (1985-1992) featured a memorable scene in which the character Dorothy rebukes her dismissive ex-physician for not taking her seriously and making her feel like a fool for thinking she was sick. Seeking answers, Dorothy was eventually diagnosed with CFS, re-assuring her that she was not in fact neurotic or delusional, and did have something going on physically. Subsequently she happens upon her ex-doctor in a restaurant and interrupts his dinner to deliver an impassioned and scathing monologue, stating acerbically at one point: “I don’t know where you doctors lose your humanity but you lose it.”
We can tell Dorothy now that we know doctors effectively have their compassion schooled out of them – if they even have much to begin with. Whatever embers remain into their professional years are effectively neutralized by legal restrictions and the code of practice which prevents doctors from being allowed to advocate the most humane, cutting-edge, intelligent, and effective remedies.
Oh, the places you’ll go, and how you won’t stop letting us know
If place-dropping sounds like name-dropping it’s because it is, only it’s as visual as it is verbal. Just as name-droppers hope to inflate their social status by hoping you’ll associate them with important people, place-droppers inflate their value by hoping you’ll associate them with important places and the money and free time required to visit said places. They do it by casually referencing or Insta-bombing all the far-flung locales they’ve visited — bonus points if they’re known celebrity destinations like St. Tropez or Monaco.
Heading to Berlin next week; sooo paranoid about the jet lag, you might say to pre-emptively place-drop. European city: check. Far enough away to experience jet lag: check. Seasoned enough traveler to complain about it: check. But what about Berlin? Why are you going? What do you hope to see there? Oops, you forgot to mention it. Classic place-drop.
“We go to New York a lot,” someone might mention with an air of annoyance, to let you know they can afford several-hundred dollar plane tickets to a cosmopolitan city several times a year, “and flying just isn’t what it used to be.” But why? What for? What it’s like? Did you form any actual opinions about it? ::Crickets::
You’ll know you’ve been placed-dropped because it feels like someone is not telling you anything other than than the fact that they’ve gone somewhere fancy and go similar fancy places a lot. A few other examples of place-dropping:
We usually do Bali but this year we might try out Morocco.
Drinks next week? Oh I can’t, that’s when I’m in Ibiza.
Just wishing I could get back over to Cannes; used to go every summer.
(Not to call out anyone specific here, but peruse #vacation for some good social media examples.)
There are a few caveats: Of course, traveling is a good, worthwhile thing to do. We should all try to see the world as much as possible, and exposure to different histories, cultures and ways of life are more mind-enhancing than the best drugs you can buy. And you should talk about where you go; that’s your life and how you spend chose to spend your time.
But place-droppers aren’t interested in talking about the experience itself; just checking the boxes of status. Place-dropping is not when someone genuinely and excitedly says they got back from an amazing trip to Spain and starts recounting the jaw-dropping sites they’ve seen. That is of value and merit; it’s also sincere. It’s not when a seasoned traveler goes to London for the hundredth time and mentions it because this time they really had a chance to take in the old castles.
Place-dropping is when someone casually mentions another Turks and Caicos trip because they’ve been going every summer for the last 10 years; haven’t you? There are no interesting details or insights; they simply went to the place and did the thing, so now you know you’re supposed to think they are cool and rich, or something.
The real crime in place-dropping is not much different than the crime of any bad conversationalist: You’re talking about yourself too much. But I’m talking about a place, you will now insist. No, you’re talking about how you went to that place. You’re talking about how you were rich enough to afford the trip and a nanny to watch the kids while you were gone.
Place-droppers are perhaps just like the kids in middle school who noticed everyone was wearing a polo shirt so they ran out and got one. They aren’t even sure if they liked it! They just correctly downloaded that everyone else liked it and thus aspired to wear one. (Reads about how everyone is going to Provence in The New York Times; books trip to Provence.) In a post-celebrity world where social media has turned likes into a virtual fame-counter for normies, we’re all reaching for the polo shirt still. And experience has replaced celebrity or other vague status symbols as an easy shorthand for Succeeding at Life…
After a bit of a lull for the past couple of months, the march toward war appears to be accelerating once again. On Monday the U.S. military shot down yet another Syrian aircraft, and it appears that President Trump’s patience with North Korea’s nuclear program may have run out. Unlike our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situations in Syria and North Korea both have the potential of sparking a much wider conflict. If we end up in a war with Syria, it is very likely that we will ultimately be fighting the Russians and the Iranians as well. On the other side of the globe, a war with North Korea could also potentially draw in China. This happened in the first Korean War, and it could easily happen again. It is understandable that the Trump administration wants to be tough with both Syria and North Korea, but we need to be extremely careful about the use of military force because one wrong move could potentially spark World War 3
For the last couple of months, the Trump administration has been relying on China to put pressure on North Korea to end their nuclear weapons program. But now it appears that Trump has given up on that. On Monday, he posted the following message on his Twitter account…
While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!
That certainly sounds quite ominous.
Is he saying that he has completely given up on a diplomatic solution?
And this tweet comes at a time when it is being reported that it looks like North Korea may be preparing for a new underground nuclear test. If North Korea goes through with another nuclear test, it is unclear at this point how the Trump administration will respond. The following comes from CNN…
The officials said it is not yet clear if the activity indicates a sixth nuclear test is imminent, but noted there is concern that North Korea could set off a test during Wednesday’s visit to Washington by top Chinese diplomats and military officials.
US officials have known that the site is ready to conduct an underground test for some time.
Two senior US officials with direct knowledge also told CNN that military options for North Korea have recently been updated, and will be presented to President Donald Trump for a decision to act if there is a nuclear test.
A military strike on North Korea would likely be completely disastrous. The North Koreans reportedly have quite a few nukes, and even if we somehow located and destroyed every single one of them before they could launch any, the North Koreans would still be able to respond with their vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. For much more on why a direct strike on North Korea would not end well, please see my previous articles here and here.
A US F-15E fighter jet shot down a pro-Syrian regime drone near At Tanf, Syria, on Monday, two US officials told CNN, the third downing of a pro-regime aircraft this month.
The US-led international coalition later confirmed the incident in a statement, saying the armed drone was downed “after it displayed hostile intent and advanced on Coalition forces” that “were manning an established combat outpost to the northeast of At Tanf where they are training and advising partner ground forces in the fight against ISIS.”
If we continue to shoot down Syrian aircraft, eventually there is going to be a response. And once a conflict erupts, we could easily find ourselves engaged with the Russian military.
At this point there is absolutely no reason for us to be in Syria. ISIS forces are on their last legs, and we could easily let Russia and Iran finish them off.
By sticking around in Syria, we are playing a very dangerous game. According to Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, if we allow things to continue to escalate we could easily find ourselves involved in a full-blown regional war…
According to Fox News, this is the second time the US has shot down an Iranian drone in less than a month. It also marks the fifth time since late May the U.S. military has bombed pro-Syrian forces in southern Syria.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy described the attack as “a dangerous escalation” of tensions between the US and the main backers of the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran.
Murphy told CNN that if the US doesn’t stop the attacks, the situation could escalate into an armed conflict between the two sides, who both claim to be fighting ISIS.
We haven’t seen things this tense between the United States and Russia since the height of the Cold War. Anti-Russian hysteria in Washington is completely out of control, and the Russians are certainly not helping things either. For example, according to Fox News a Russian Su-27 came “within 5 feet” of an American recon plane over the Baltic Sea on Monday…
With all the Susan G. Komen “runs for the cure” and incessant talk of pink ribbons, you’d think women were dropping like flies from breast cancer, but this isn’t the number one killer of women in modern society.
The most common killer of women is also one of the most preventable diseases. According to research from Harvard, coronary heart disease, and the stress which is behind it, is the leading cause of death among the female gender, but why?
As per the study, women are six times more likely to worry about getting breast cancer, but heart-disease is a much more real and present danger. Part of the problem is that breast cancer usually hits a woman in her 50s, while the first heart attack happens to women when they are much older, so it is easier to discount heart disease, and the underlying factors which contribute to it.
Another possible reason women worry about breast cancer more than the health of their hearts, is two-fold: we are naturally outwardly focused as nurturers, and Big Pharma has a racket going with breast cancer, so we’re primed to think of this disease first. $9,850 dollar breast cancer drug anyone?
Heart disease is also sneaky. It doesn’t always start with a serious stroke or heart attack. The physical symptoms can include fatigue, shortness of breath, mid-chest pressure (not pain), nausea, and radiating pain from the jaw or the left shoulder.
Non-physical symptoms of an ailing heart can include:
– An inability to express openly, the suffering and pain we’ve endured emotionally. (Even the Harvard study says that a woman’s stress is often discounted and her symptoms chalked up as hypochondria, so women are taught to ‘suck it up.’)
– An inability to forgive and express compassion.
– Leading with our heads instead of our hearts.
– Co-dependent tendencies or a lack of expressing our full power.
– Lack of acceptance.
In Sanskrit, the heart chakra is called Anahata, which means unstruck note, or unwounded love. A woman is born with an innate ability to love unconditionally, but through cultural and familial pressure we’ve been taught, just like men, to stuff it down, and cut ourselves off from the emotions that can with a broken heart or a heart that needs to express forgiveness for pain caused by others.
When the heart chakra is balanced, it radiates serenity balance, and calm. It easily gives and receives love. It doesn’t ruminate on past hurts because they’ve been expressed in a healthy way.
Why are so many women dying of a heart attacks and strokes associated with heart disease? Our hearts must return to the “unhurt” or “unstruck, unbeaten” state, the “unmade sound” which is infinitely, AUM. (Or, really the fourth sound following A-U-M, which is silence).
When the Zen koan asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping/” It refers to this “unstruck note.” It is referring to the primal energy of sound itself, the sound of creation, of love in its creative force.
We must trust the intelligence of the heart to be our inner compass again. As we nurture others, we must also nurture ourselves. If we feel as if we don’t belong or fit in, it’s time to reach out and connect with others who can accept us as we are.
It is also interesting to note, that women don’t respond to traditional medicine the way that men have. As the Harvard study details,
“Most of our ideas about heart disease in women used to come from studying it in men. But there are many reasons to think that it’s different in women. A woman’s symptoms are often different from a man’s, and she’s much more likely than a man to die within a year of having a heart attack. Women also don’t seem to fare as well as men do after taking clot-busting drugs or undergoing certain heart-related medical procedures. Research is only now beginning to uncover the biological, medical, and social bases of these and other differences. The hope is that new knowledge will lead to advances in tailoring prevention and treatment to women.”
The heart is a fascinating muscle, and its energy is used for much more than just pumping blood through our veins. According to Rollin McCraty, Director of Research at the Institute of HeartMath, the heart’s electromagnetic field is about 5000 times stronger than that of the cranial brain, interacting with and permeating every cell of our bodies. When we heal the heart’s energy, women will return to their natural state of compassionate, uncompromising, unconditional lovers. This is what needs healing.
In 1969, the British writer Philip Pullman was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. The author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) wasn’t on drugs, although he had been reading a lot of books on Renaissance magic. But he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception’. He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’
What does one call such an experience? Pullman refers to it as ‘transcendent’. The philosopher and psychologist William James called them ‘religious experiences’ – although Pullman, who wrote a fictionalised biography of Jesus, would insist that God was not involved. Other psychologists call such moments spiritual, mystical, anomalous or out-of-the-ordinary. My preferred term is ‘ecstatic’. Today, we think of ecstasy as meaning the drug MDMA or the state of being ‘very happy’, but originally it meant ekstasis – a moment when you stand outside your ordinary self, and feel a connection to something bigger than you. Such moments can be euphoric, but also terrifying.
Over the past five centuries, Western culture has gradually marginalised and pathologised ecstasy. That’s partly a result of our shift from a supernatural or animist worldview to a disenchanted and materialist one. In most cultures, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit world. In our culture, since the 17th century, if you suggest you’re connected to the spirit world, you’re likely to be considered ignorant, eccentric or unwell. Ecstasy has been labelled as various mental disorders: enthusiasm, hysteria, psychosis. It’s been condemned as a threat to secular government. We’ve become a more controlled, regulated and disciplinarian society, in which one’s standing as a good citizen relies on one’s ability to control one’s emotions, be polite, and do one’s job. The autonomous self has become our highest ideal, and the idea of surrendering the self is seen as dangerous.
Yet ecstatic experiences are surprisingly common, we just don’t talk about them. The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent. In a survey I did in 2016, 84 per cent of respondents said they’d had an experience where they went beyond their ordinary self, and felt connected to something greater than them. But 75 per cent agreed there was a taboo around such experiences.
There’s even a database of more than 6,000 such experiences, amassed by the biologist Sir Alister Hardy in the 1960s and now mouldering in storage in Wales. They make for a strangely beautiful read, a sort of crowdsourced Bible. Here is entry number 208: ‘I was out walking one night in busy streets of Glasgow when, with slow majesty, at a corner where the pedestrians were hurrying by and the city traffic was hurtling on its way, the air was filled with heavenly music, and an all-encompassing light, that moved in waves of luminous colour, outshone the brightness of the lighted streets. I stood still, filled with a strange peace and joy … until I found myself in the everyday world again with a strange access of gladness and of love.’
The most common word used when describing such experiences is ‘connection’ – we briefly shift beyond our separate self-absorbed egos, and feel deeply connected to other beings, or to all things. Some interpret these moments as an encounter with the divine, but not all do. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, also had a ‘mystic moment’ when he suddenly felt filled with love for people on a London street. The experience didn’t turn him into a Christian, but it did turn him into a life-long pacifist.
I became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self’, ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace? Can one seek ecstasy?
Pullman thinks not. He says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. It is far too self-centred. Things like my experience are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism.’
I disagree. It seems to me that humans have always sought ecstasy. The earliest human artefacts – the cave paintings of Lascaux – are records of Homo sapiens’ attempt to get out of our heads. We have always sought ways to ‘unself’, as the writer Iris Murdoch called it, because the ego is an anxious, claustrophobic, lonely and boring place to be stuck. As the author Aldous Huxley wrote, humans have ‘a deep-seated urge to self-transcendence’. However, we can get out of our ordinary selves in good and bad ways – what Huxley called ‘healthy and toxic transcendence’…