Tomorrow, I’m speaking at an online event organized by my friend Mark Vernon, called ‘Beyond Flatland’. The event features various interesting thinkers including Angela Voss , who edited a book called ‘Re-enchanting Academia’; Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of the ‘mystical humanities’; and Geoffrey Cornelius, professor of the faculty of astrology.
Albus Dumbledore is the keynote. Then me, adjunct professor of ecstasy.
I happen to be reading a book of Kripal’s at the moment, his history of Esalen, where he’s the director of the Centre for Research.
There’s a line in that book — ‘Esalen existed in the liminal space between academia and the counterculture’ — which made me think of the conference tomorrow, and my own relationship to academia.
I’ve written about Esalen a few times before, but it’s a place in Big Sur, California, set up in 1962, which offers week and weekend-long courses, mainly in personal growth.
It is like an alternative college, exploring topics that academia was scared to touch (ecstatic experiences, psychedelics, alternative medicine, astrology, UFOs, ESP etc), but also exploring new ways of knowing, beyond the lecture format, like the encounter session, the trip, the massage, the ‘Gunther hero sandwich’.
(Yes, the ‘Gunther hero sandwich’ — I’ll come back to that at the end).
Why did it require a non-academic college to explore these ideas?
Academia has a kind of vice-hold on western culture, and on what is designated ‘truth’. It has one dominant mind-set — rational-intellectual and resolutely secular; one main method of learning — the lecture; and one main method of evaluation — the exam.
Its culture was defined by the sociologist Max Weber, in his very influential lecture of 1917, ‘Science as a Vocation’.
Weber insisted that academia must be committed to the search for objective rational truth. It must have no other values than that. It must resist the temptation to serve other gods, such as happiness or wisdom. The lecture room must not become a church pulpit, he insisted.
This defence of the objectivity of academia sounds heroic but was in fact profoundly disingenuous. Academic culture is not a ‘view from nowhere’. Weber was deeply committed to one view, one ideology — secular naturalism — and he envisaged academics as foot-soldiers for the advance of this ideology. Academia is, for him, a machine for disenchantment. That dogma academics are very much encouraged and expected to preach. In fact, it is so all-encompassing it is simply taken for granted.
Yes, his attitude to disenchantment is ambivalent. Yes, he thinks the modern godless condition is somewhat tragic. But we must face it like adults. To believe in anything except secular materialism is to collapse into childish superstition, he tells us sternly.
So what Weber really means by ‘serving objective truth’ is ‘serving secular materialism’. If you do not commit to that ideology, you are an enemy of academia, a ghost in the machine, a throwback, an evolutionary vestige. You are a male nipple.
Also, academia has long had a tendency to group-think. This is a consequence of the peer-review system, maybe, and the hierarchical nature of PhD supervision. It is very difficult to think outside established lines of thinking. You get bitten, like a husky that has strayed out of the tracks.
That’s why ‘paradigm shifts’ (I hate that phrase) often start outside of academia.
When there was a shift from the Aristotelian to the materialist worldview in the 17th century, for example, it was pioneered by thinkers outside of academia, like Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes.
Since the 1950s, there has been a slow shift against the rationalist-materialist ideology, to try and re-integrate forbidden ways of knowing — dreams, visions, trance states, mystical, psychedelic and paranormal experiences, and somatic knowledge (knowing with the body).
This has mainly but not entirely occurred outside academia, led by semi-academic figures like Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Gerald Heard — the so-called ‘mystical expats’ who helped to inspire Esalen.
These figures had one foot in academia, or a toe at least. They were occasional recipients of fellowship funding which allowed them to spend a year at Harvard (in Watts’ case) or Duke (in Heard’s), or to deliver lecture courses at MIT and UCSB (in Huxley’s case).
But they were more at home in alternative educational places like Esalen, or the California Institute of Integral Studies (initially known as the American Academy of Asian Studies, where Watts was briefly the dean).
The mystical expats were the opposite of the Weberian scientist. They rebelled against the idea it was impossible or wrong to teach wisdom and flourishing and even mystical truth. They also — in Heard and Huxley’s case anyway — critiqued the hegemony of secular materialism and pointed out all the phenomena that this theory fails to account for (like, say, consciousness).
I also believe that it’s possible to explore topics like meaning, happiness and even mystical truth within the confines of academia. However, it’s not easy. I agree with Weber that academics should not be preachers or gurus.
The difference between a guru and an academic is the academic has the willingness and capacity to criticize their own ideas, rather than teaching them ex cathedra, as if they were gospel truth and not to be questioned. There is a greater flexibility and reflectiveness there.
That is what I try to do. Explore wisdom traditions, but in a critical, pluralist, historical way. I explore ecstatic experiences, even my own, but never insist on one interpretation of them.
Talking of academic gurus, I see Jordan Peterson has returned from Russian rehab to teach us meaning and wisdom once more, and his return has provoked my academic colleagues into paroxysms of scorn. The employees of his publisher, Penguin Canada, even tearfully protested against him for being a ‘beacon of white supremacy’ (I think this is a clever marketing campaign — he owes most of his success to hysterical leftist protests).
I have tried to read Peterson and personally find him quite boring and obvious. But it’s worth asking — why is this man so hugely popular? Why can this academic, uniquely, fill the O2 arena with his fans?
It is because he offers meaning, myths, traditions and ethics to a generation fed either boring technocratic career education, or self-lacerating critical theory. I personally think he slips into the guru role, and is on something of a Messianic / apocalyptic trip. He reminds me less of a careful thinker and more of the mad prophet in Network: ‘I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!’
Still, I believe higher education can teach meaning, happiness, wisdom, virtue, even mystical truth. But it takes a certain balance to do it.
This coming month, I leave academia after eight years. Or at least, the grant on which I have been working for the last four years comes to an end. Who knows where I go from here, but I’ll probably be a digital nomad for a while, possibly living here in Costa Rica.
I have been extremely lucky. I was lucky enough to work with a senior academic — Professor Thomas Dixon — who gave me a job when I didn’t have a PhD, and then encouraged me to go off on all my wild adventures of the last five years, and was not put off when I became an evangelical Christian or wrote about my ayahuasca experiences.
Those topics and experiences seem quite far from the academic mainstream. I remember meeting a psychologist at my university, and telling him I’d just been trying ayahuasca in the Peruvian jungle. ‘You’ve been taking drugs?’ he asked. ‘Well, you know, exploring the psychology of transcendence’, I replied. He’d never heard of the word!
It is hard enough to get academics to talk about well-being and happiness, never mind transcendence. I tried for 8 years to get my university to develop a more coherent well-being strategy. I knew that students loved talks and courses on well-being (as long as they were done intelligently and critically), and that it made sense to link together well-being research with well-being courses and well-being / therapy services — so that students can learn how to take care of their minds and the different sorts of flourishing we can seek in life.
Many of my academic colleagues gave their time and support to this collective effort to upgrade our well-being strategy. But for some reason senior management never got behind it. This is pretty standard, I think. As the great Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, points out, well-being initiatives are taken up by some enthusiastic individuals at universities, but they then leave, and universities don’t deem it important enough to put anything systemic in place.
(By the by, did you know Bok grew up with Huxley and Heard as unofficial god-parents? His mother Peggy was one of their best friends. Derek Bok is one of the great thinkers on how to reform higher education to make it more conducive to happiness and wisdom — his new book explores that.)
I do think things will change eventually, and universities will start taking the well-being of students more seriously.
But this year has exposed rather brutally that, if it comes to choosing between the well-being of students or the financial interests of the university, finances come first. I’m not talking about my university here, but I was shocked by how many universities lured students to sign up with them this year with promises of ‘blended learning’, only to shut them into their halls like prisoners, feed them stale sandwiches, and deliver all of their courses online.
That makes all the promises around ‘student well-being’ sound pretty hollow.
The massive industrial modern university is like a Soviet supermarket. Students have to pay high market rates, but they are barely offered any variety in terms of the types of courses they can take. It’s almost entirely three-year full-time courses in one discipline. Tattered Soviet banners hang above the shelves, with slogans like ‘Inclusion’, ‘Skills’, ‘Justice’, ‘Well-Being’ and ‘Diversity’. But there is not much diversity on offer in the politics, nor in the metaphysics. It’s a weirdly monocultural industry.
But it’s changing. The boundaries of which it is acceptable to study are slowly broadening. In the last decade, academia has started to study things like meditation and psychedelics much more. UK academia is even a leader in psychedelic research. Fancy that!
Still, if you want to study wisdom, spirituality or transpersonal psychology, you are probably better off looking to alternative adult education, to places like the Alef Trust, the Weekend University, Rebel Wisdom, the Psychedelic Society, the College of Psychic Studies and so on.
Meanwhile, Esalen is still going. I interviewed the co-founder of it, Michael Murphy, in 2018, and was astonished by his vitality and charm.
In a New Age / wellness landscape where we are sorely lacking in long-lasting institutions, where all too often communities burn brightly then collapse into coltishness, Esalen has somehow survived — it will celebrate its 60th birthday in 2022.
It is committed to reintegrating the body into wisdom, and reintegrating ecstatic states of consciousness and paranormal powers into accepted ways of knowing. Murphy embraces an evolutionary spirituality — he thinks more and more humans are evolving superpowers, and eventually humans will fulfil their glorious potential as superbeings.
Kripal describes Esalen as like the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning in the X-Men — a school for mutants, for the evolutionary superbeings of tomorrow. As regular readers will know, I am a little wary of that tendency in New Age spirituality to see oneself and one’s friends as part of the evolutionary vanguard. It’s a short step from Xavier to Magneto (who thinks homo sapiens have outgrown their use and don’t deserve to survive).
At the same time, I feel that there is a basic tension within spirituality, between the heights and the width.
On the one hand, it seems worthwhile to preserve the idea of spiritual excellence, of peaks which humans can ascend, of mastery in certain spiritual disciplines, and even of reaching something called ‘enlightenment’. All of that implies some sort of hierarchy and an elite who devote many hours to their practice. It implies superbeings like Michael Jordan (his coach, Phil Jackson, was quite inspired by Esalen, by the by).
On the other hand, I like the more democratic idea of wisdom for all, well-being for all, liberation for all. It’s more the iphone app version of wisdom — you don’t go very deep, but you share it very widely.
I don’t think one can resolve this tension. It’s always there, and it’s healthy.
Well, I don’t really have a good end to this week’s essay. I’ll just say, I’ve noticed I have a compulsive tendency in myself to criticize the institutions and communities to which I belong, out of some pathological feeling of being an unappreciated outsider. I find myself compulsively criticizing academia, the BBC, British culture, Christianity, New Age spirituality…
This is the weird fuel I run on — the wood-chip-burner on my shoulder.
But let me put down the wood-chip burner for one moment and say thank you to all my academic colleagues for their friendship and support and our collective endeavours over the last eight years. I’ve met some truly fascinating people, and I’ve learnt a little bit of the critical rigour in which you excel.
Right, back to the Gunther Hero Sandwich….find out more here.