I’m running my Philosophies for Life course again at the moment in Bristol, then I’ll be doing it over a weekend in London at the end of February.
It’s inspired by Aldous Huxley’s idea of integrated education.
Huxley was fascinated by all the different levels you could understand human experience on: the cellular, the biological, the psychological, the political, the cultural, the ecological, all the way up to the cosmic and the theological.
He dreamt of writing a novel which combined all these levels, and gave it a shot in Point Counter Point, but it didn’t quite work.
He was searching for wholeness — a way of bringing together the sciences and the humanities, and indeed all the disciplines into one ‘theory of everything’.
The violinist Yehudi Menuhin said of him:
He was scientist and artist in one — standing for all we most need in a fragmented world, where each of us carries a distorting splinter out of some great shattered universal mirror. He made it his mission to restore these fragments and, at least in his presence, men were whole again.
Huxley attempted to impart his holistic, integrated vision in a series of lectures, which he gave at Santa Barbara in 1959, which were later published as The Human Situation.
The original sin, he said, is over-simplification. Academics have one theory, one way of looking at the world — Freudian, say, or genetic, or ecological, or Marxist — and they fit everything into that one level, rather than realizing that humans are ‘amphibian’ — we exist and are best understood on multiple levels.
Some of the lectures are definitely better than others. And of course, these were lectures — they entirely miss out physical education, or what he called ‘training in the non-verbal humanities’. It would be left to Esalen, the spiritual training college he inspired in California, to fill that gap in his vision.
But it’s a bold effort. And how refreshing to see him discuss mystical experiences at the end of it all. That’s very rare in academia.
My course is less ambitious and less brilliant than his, but it’s inspired by the same idea. It teaches eight different ways of understanding and transforming the self.
First, how our self is made up of our thoughts, but we’re not just our thoughts — we can step back from them, observe and change them. I teach this via a brief introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Then, how we are our emotions but not just our emotions, which I teach with an introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Buddhist practices for accepting difficult emotions.
Then, the automatic mind and the Jungian subconscious; then the body and body-focused therapies; then relationships and attachment theory; then work and motivation theory; then gender, class and sexuality and an exploration of identity politics; then ecology and systems theory.
Each stage, we explore how we can understand ourselves at this level, yet we cannot account for all of us at any one level. The aim is to help people avoid getting stuck in any particular story, so they achieve ‘psychological flexibility’, or a more spacious and adaptive sense of self, able to roll with the terrain while still going towards its goals.
Finally, we explore the idea of the ‘observing self’ — that mysterious part of us which observes all these stories and yet is more than them. Self-as-context, rather than self-as-content.
If it sounds like a lot of content and theory, in fact, I’ve learned to talk for 15 minutes at a time, then set the group an exercise, usually in pairs. A lot of the exercises come from Authentic Relating games.
A lot of what people get from these kinds of small-group courses is inter-relational. They enjoy bonding with other people and being heard and seen themselves.
Action for Happiness launched its own eight-part course, and evaluated it, releasing the results this week. They tell me they found the same thing:
the thing everyone tends to say is something along the lines of ‘having meaningful conversations with a friendly group of people and talking about the things that really matter’.
So you as the group-teacher don’t want to talk too much. You want to create space for meaningful conversations. This is what the Alpha course does very well, and Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is really a form of group theatre — people recount their old self, perform their new self, and receive applause and affirmation from the small group.
Now, one of the things that people ask me on the course is ‘what happens after the course?’
There’s sometimes a problem with self-improvement or spirituality groups, which is that you do a course or retreat, you bond with your group and feel motivated to continue the journey, and then it just dissipates at the end.
I felt that massively after the ayahuasca retreat I went on in 2017 (which I wrote about in this little book). We went to the Amazon jungle because we felt a bit lost and alone. We became super-bonded through the magic of the ayahuasca rituals. And then we went back to our separate lives, feeling even more alienated. It was still a very positive experience, but you get my point.
Sometimes, in the New Age marketplace, if you want to belong to a community, you have to keep paying for more and more courses. If you want to be part of the Landmark community, say, or Tony Robbins’ ‘community’, you have to pay for ever-more expensive courses, and sign up everyone you know.
The Alpha course, by contrast, whisks you straight from the course into a ‘prayer group’, and hugs you tightly to the warm bosom of the church. Yes, you are then encouraged to make donations to the church, but it’s voluntary.
Buddhist organisations do something similar — intro courses, weekend retreats, and then the opportunity to join the organisation and volunteer.
At the end of my course, when people say ‘what now?’ I offer an introduction to lots of other groups where people can deepen their training in particular practices or philosophies. So I’ll introduce graduates to local Authentic Relating groups, or meditation groups. And I also encourage them to set up their own small philosophy group and keep meeting that way.
But I wonder if I should or can offer more, both for them and for myself.
What I have in mind, what I’d like to run past you, is the idea of a larger group where people can check in, encourage each other in their inner work practice, and organize for outer work to improve their society.
I am thinking about calling it ‘Compassionate Warrior Training’. I don’t know if this is a bit grandiose. It’s inspired by Pema Chodron, and her writing on training to be a bodhisattva (the Mayahana Buddhist word for a warrior of compassion dedicated to the flourishing of all things).
I like the idea of Compassionate Warrior Training as both an inner practice (learning to be wise and compassionate to oneself) and an outer practice (learning to be compassionate to others, trying to improve one’s society).
The image at the top of this essay is a state of Avalokiteshvara, the thousand-armed bodhisattva of compassion. The image suggests both inner work and collective outer work reaching out into the world. Our image or logo could be a secular version of that — a thousand arms in a circle, stretching out into the world.
The idea of connecting inner and outer work has been emphasized by my brother Alex Evans, who runs the Collective Psychology Project. He’s also interested in running small groups and connecting them together. And it reminds me of this roadmap from the Metta Centre for Non-Violence, which is also clearly trying to develop a bodhisattva philosophy of inner and outer work.
The organisation would have a brief set of values and principles. But it would be loose enough to welcome people with different inner practices, and with different approaches to improving society. One of the main principles would be ‘disagree politely and non-violently, without shaming or condemning those you disagree with’.
The outer work can involve political activism, but it could and should be as much about smaller local projects, like setting up a soup kitchen, for example, or visiting prisons and psychiatric hospitals to offer support.
The difference between it and places like Sunday Assembly and Action for Happiness is it wouldn’t be committed to atheism, or humanism, or Buddhism or Utilitarianism or any other philosophy, it just has a guiding value of ‘try to be kinder to oneself and to other beings’ (I happen to think this is the goal of life). It’s also a much simpler design, and it’s focused on action — how are you doing on your self-work? How can we work together to help others?
Each local chapter would thus be a place offering community, accountability, and collective organisation for worthwhile projects.
It would be more than a philosophy club (which is what I’ve run in the past) because it would be more explicitly focused on encouraging inner and outer change in accordance with its guiding value of compassion.
However, it could also offer talks, like a philosophy club does. I especially think scientific literacy is an important thing we need to encourage in ourselves and others, if we’re committed to improving the well-being of ourselves and other people.
I’m not planning on starting a new religion, or anything like that. It’s a pretty simple design, but I think it could fulfil a need people have. And in a small way it might help strengthen us all for the challenging work of these times.
So that’s what I’m thinking of trialling in Bristol and London in the next few weeks. Any thoughts, feedback, suggestions?