My regulation Anglican — Episcopalian — upbringing ended when
my mum let me stay at home instead of going with the family to Church.
I was 11 years old. It wasn’t a religious decision: I just found Church
boring. As soon as I entered my teens, I began to question. Asked if any
but those of his own Methodist persuasion would enter the kingdom of heaven,
Religious Education teacher quietly said ‘no’. I wasn’t
trying to be difficult; I was genuinely curious. The next week, I asked
if he believed that God could ever forgive the Devil — Christianity
being a religion based upon forgiveness, so I was told. He again responded
in the negative. At that moment, my Christian belief evaporated. I told my
mother that I wouldn’t be confirmed into the faith, and I wasn’t.
Let me note here that she was far more tolerant of this decision than most
parents would be, given the strength of her own conviction.
thought the teachings of Jesus mostly wonderful, but the Christian Churches
seemed to represent something quite other than those teachings. At 14,
I read a little Plato, and found the ideas of Socrates fascinating — especially
the discourse on love in Symposium
. I was also influenced by
Herman Hesse, and especially his novel Siddhartha
, which describes
a journey to enlightenment. That may have been where I first met the concept
from the illusion into which we are all born.
age 17, I read the Tao Teh Ching
by Lao Tzu, and felt as if
I’d come home. This book — in some of its many translations — has
stayed with me ever since. In 1984, I was even presumptuous enough to write
my own version, more as a way of studying the text than of trying to present
I love the non-religious character of the 81 brief chapters, and Lao Tzu’s
practical approach. The Tao Teh Ching
describes an eminently sensible
way of living. It is marvellously augmented by the other two Tao classics — Chuang
Tzu and Sun Tzu. The ever quirky Chuang Tzu remains my role model, though
my endeavours to be like him have almost entirely failed.
18, I bought a copy of Paul Reps’ wonderful Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
and learned something about this Japanese mixture of Buddhism and Taoism.
I liked the humour, and the continuing attempt to ‘burst the bag’ of
intellectual reasoning. I arrived at the then newly opened Throssle Hole
Soto Zen Priory, in the far north of England, determined to spend six months
studying there. Waking at six o’clock, washing in cold water, and falling
to my face thirty or forty times after repeating the mangled Japanese version
of an Indian patriarch’s name twice a day finished me off far more quickly.
I lasted a couple of days, daunted in my search for satori
I learned the practice of zazen
— sitting in meditation — and
had a fascinating interview with the Abbot. Much, much later, I met and
loved Professor Daisetz Suzuki’s ideas, especially his insistence that
the failure of Zen is in monasticism. His description of nirvana
me. But I can’t remember a word of it now.
Aged 19, I began a nine-year involvement with Scientology (and therefore
Dianetics). I returned from a stressful six weeks in France to find that
my long-term girlfriend had fallen in love with one of our friends. I felt
that I was too emotionally vulnerable, and Scientology promised emotional
equanimity. It didn’t deliver, but after leaving I made quite a name
writing about that group.
I avoid looking, but there are still thousands of references to my
book and other cult-related writings on the Internet. In January 1996, after
over 12 years of research, writing and counselling work, I wrote my last statement
about Scientology. A few years later, they stopped sueing me.
Coming out of Scientology was a wonderful release. Not having to align my
beliefs to a fixed — and often contradictory — creed was splendid.
I read a fair amount of Krishnamurti, Alexandra David-Neel and Alan Watts,
and saw the same experiences described in many different ways. My favourite
book at the time was probably The Common Experience
, by Cohn and
Phipps, which explores this notion.
I came to the belief that religion is a social phenomenon — a
way of keeping people together, whereas mysticism is a personal
search. So I became a mystic in my own tiny way. I also accepted that there
is no contradiction in being a mystic and an atheist. Mysticism is a method
of enquiry, an exploration of the self (and of course the non-self, or anatta,
of Buddhist teaching). It can be practised empirically — using observation
and experiment — but it is practised individually. I have never been
a practitioner of any form of magic. I believe that any attempt to control
others without their consent is unethical.
have long agreed with the Buddhist view that the self is an illusion. We are
each an everchanging crossroads of multiple experiences. I was amused in 1991
when an annoyed friend criticised me for reading a psychology text written
ten years before, and told me that I should look at something more up-to-date.
He sent me Dennett’s Consciousness Explained
of course puts forward the ancient Buddhist view that there is no observer
in the mind (‘the knower and the known are one’). Although Alan
Watts was far from a perfect man, his analogy for the self still seems
accurate: the self is like a whirlpool — it retains its shape although
the energy that makes that shape is forever changing. The shape is itself
the Zennists say. A fair description of my own mind, most days.
Michel de Montaigne ranks high among European thinkers.
He explained, for example, that his reluctance to punish his daughter came not
from a feeling that it would be to her detriment, but from his knowledge of
the shame he would feel if he did so. A true humanist.
a couple of phrases from him. He was an adviser of kings who retired from
public life to live contentedly, a man comparable to Chuang Tzu. His teaching
is delicate and compassionate at a time — as is our own — of great
I wanted to understand my experiences in Scientology, so I read about exploitative
persuasion. It seemed that an understanding of hypnosis
and thought reform was absolutely consonant with the search for truth.
The first text of Scientology — Book One, as they call it — asserts
that rather than giving people new hypnotic commands, we should bring to
consciousness those hypnotic commands that they are already acting out.
I am unconvinced of that organization’s methods, but I believe that
this observation is absolutely right. Conscious, intelligent control should
be returned to the individual.
empirical psychology has been a long time coming. The bizarre notions of
the American behaviourists — Watson and Skinner — formed a
barrier to research for decades. And while Freud and friends developed
some powerful insights, their work soon became a cultish rulebook, forbidding
enquiry. And there is always a tendency for the enquirer in psychology
to explore his or her own problems and believe them to be the all. Now
we have something like a real cognitive science. I have been influenced
by professor Daniel Goleman’s writings, especially his Vital Lies,
which is a psychology of self-deception: A vital subject for the would
be mystic. I have also found Aaron Beck’s writings on Cognitive Therapy
very useful in explaining the constant miscommunication that happens between
people and with our selves. Love
is Never Enough
is a fine book about communication, centreing on marriage,
but relevant to all relationships. I am also deeply impressed by Cognitive
Therapy and the Emotional Disorders,
which gives a straightforward analysis
of mood, and a rational approach to self-understanding.
the last decade, psychology has moved ahead in leaps and bounds. This former
province of opinionated cranks is submitting to the empirical method. Oliver
Sacks was a forerunner of the current trend. Robin Williams had a good
crack at playing him in Awakenings
. Sachs has a refreshing
sweetness and humility, so unlike the tyrannical egos of so many geniuses.
of the Colorblind
gives insight into the normal brain by investigating
the deterioration caused by various diseases. V.S. Ramachandran, an eminent
neuroscientist, collaborated with Sandra Blakeslee to produce the highly
in the Brain
. Ramachandran pioneered a simple technique — using
a box and a mirror — to relieve sufferers from the agonising pains of
phantom limb syndrome. As previous treatments included hacking away more
and more of the limb, this was a great boon. The book’s account of the
humourist James Thurber’s delight at his progression into a world of
hallucination with the onset of Charles Bonnet syndrome is humbling. Of
his colourful blindness, Thurber wrote ‘Man
has devised no spectacle of light in any way similar to this sublime arrangement
of colors or holy visitation.’
My political attitudes remain naïve. I do believe that the salvation
of humanity will come through increased responsibility on the part of the
individual. I share the general distrust of politicians and the commercial
oligarchy that gives them direction. I have no faith in socialism, but
I do believe that power should be held at the lowest level possible, rather
than being grabbed for those at the top. This gives me a tendency towards
anarcho-syndicalism — an
expression I learned from Monty Python’s Holy Grail
. I can
posit no solution, but the errors of every system attempted thus far seem
obvious. The writings of peaceful anarchists have inspired me, especially
the work of the father of the mother of Frankenstein’s monster — William
Godwin (his daughter married Shelley and wrote Frankenstein
). His Enquiry
Concerning Political Justice
is profoundly insightful, and far too long
for me ever to finish.
2003, I read The Sufis
by Idries Shah, a welcome introduction
to a movement that has survived at the edge of Islam from the time of the
prophet. Shah was a multi-faceted and fascinating man, and the sayings
of the Sufi teachers are distinctly enlivening. I have read half a dozen
of his books since, Thinkers of the East
is a straightforward introduction
to a tradition of wisdom that goes back before the time of Mohammed, although
it has generally been allied with Islam (perhaps because its adherents
were burnt at the stake in Christendom).
I have spent many years speaking out against fake fakirs and gruesome gurus.
As Shah says, true teachers ask for nothing in return for wisdom. Shah
himself still courted the danger of being taken as a guru, and I reject
his notion that a guru is a necessity for illumination.
But, then I can make no claim to be illuminated, so how would I know?
The teacher who exemplifies the end of the guru phase is Joseph Campbell.
He taught literature, but included a module on mythology in his course, over
sixty years ago. The module was so popular that within a few semesters it
became his sole subject. Campbell came to believe that mythology should be
the freshman or first-year study of all undergraduates, and having read several
of his books I strongly support his view.
survey of religious thought is exhaustive. He probed prehistory and gave
fine explanations of the 30,000 year old origins of beliefs still prevalent
today. The priestly culture — the authority of the rule-book — still
governs in our own totalitarian times. Campbell shows its origins in ancient
Sumer over five thousand years ago. His interviews on Power of the Myth
a fine introduction to his work, but buy the US edition not the hacked
down BBC version. His four volume work The Masks of God
Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology and Creative Mythology)
took twelve years to write, and offers a fine course for the modern mystic.
As I do, Campbell rejects the notion of God as a person
. He speaks
of the Hindu concept of the Absolute with Qualities
and the Absolute
. That which many call the Tao
. With Campbell’s urging, I have at last picked up the copy of The Upanishads
has languished on my shelf these last twenty years. In this work, which
predates Jesus by some six hundred years, the universe is seen as the emanation
of a single unity (translated as ‘the Self’). The thought fits in well with
Emerson and the Transcendentalists.
Campbell rejects the quietist withdrawal from the world common to Oriental
mystics. For that matter, so does Shah, and Mahayana Buddhism insists on
the return to the world (see the Ten Bulls in Zen Flesh, Zen
But Campbell explains with great eloquence the impact of the Troubadour
movement and the Grail legends, which transformed Western culture by showing
the power of amor as distinct from the eros of lust, or
the friendly agape. Amor is
the love of another person — marriage for the sake of love, rather than
as a business deal. Oriental belief has nothing of amor, and through amor we
can learn what it is to love. I have the great good fortune to have amor as
a part of my life, and I can confirm its healing, empowering nature.
Campbell goes on to say that the contemporary shamans, the visionaries who
give life to the essential teachings — a necessity in each generation — are
artists. He cites James Joyce and Thomas Mann as exemplars. The Flight
of the Wild Gander
and the last volume of the Masks of God, Creative
, have influenced me as much as anything I have read. As he
says in that work, ‘Since in the world of time every man lives but one life,
it is in himself that he must search for the secret of the Garden.’ (p.624)
We each continue the journey. Self-obsessed; eager to correct others; absolutely
immodest in our pretence at humility. But the way is beautiful, and every