Mark Vernon is a philosopher, psychotherapist and writer. His forthcoming book ‘”A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness.” (John Hunt Publishing), will be out in April 2019. Further information on Mark and his work can be found here.
MV: A question that I am thinking a lot about at the moment is how to see spiritually. Seeing spiritually is about how to see with the imagination, or see with the soul – you might say. It comes particularly from Plato, who offered a philosophy that is about a reality that is immanent and all around us, but which we are otherwise rather blind to. This is one way of reading his myth of the cave, the idea that we are stuck at the back of the cave, and what we take to be reality is really shadows dancing on the wall, and there is a journey that we have to undergo – and it’s a fearful journey as well as a joyful journey – but if you undertake it, then your inner eye opens up, and you perceive the same world, but in a very different way.
So how do we see spiritually – what might that be about, what does it take within me? Because Plato was very clear that we have to resonate with reality, in order to perceive reality. And so if our minds are narrow, or our minds are preoccupied with certain questions (maybe personal questions that are quite troubling), that will be what we perceive as reality. Whereas if we can get over ourselves a bit, and open our minds, then we will perceive reality in a very different way – because we are resonating with it. Knowing was all about participating to Plato, so that’s what we must try to focus on.
KP: Can you unpack this idea that knowing is about participating a little more?
MV: It might help to contrast it with scientific understanding because knowing in this way stresses not participating in reality. So a scientist aims to be objective, detached, and scientific knowledge doesn’t depend on how the scientist lives or who the scientist is. Reality is treated as something that can be studied from the outside in, whereas participative knowing argues that it must also be studied from the inside out. Who you are and how you’re living makes all the difference to what you see. This is what is meant by participation.
KP: What do you mean by the soul or spirituality – these are important concepts here, but also difficult to define…
MV: Soul is the quality of aliveness that you and I have. It’s what makes us ourselves. It’s what makes us a person as opposed to a biomechanical machine. It’s something felt rather than measured. Spirituality is the capacity to appreciate this felt aliveness both in yourself and everything else. To be spiritual is to take this dimension of life seriously.
KP: So what is the process then, how do we begin to see spiritually?
MV: I think the first task is to know yourself, as the old adage in the Greek world went. What that does is help you to realise the limits of yourself, and the limits to your perception – then you begin to see over the horizon of your perception.
KP: Is this something that is really only known through experience, that perhaps you can be guided towards, but you cannot learn it in the same way as you might learn facts about a subject?
MV: I think it’s something that comes to you. You might read someone who is describing it. For example, you might read a bit of poetry one year, then you return to it five years later and think ‘goodness me, that is extraordinary’. I really like William Blake’s line ‘eternity’s sunrise’
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
I remember reading that years ago and not really understanding what it meant. Now when I read it, I think this is him on the cusp of a spiritual awakening. He’s got over himself, which is why he can fly with the dawn – and what he sees is eternity’s sunrise, divine presence wherever he looks.
KP: As a psychotherapist, do you think seeing spiritually is related to mental health?
MV: The premise of psychotherapy is that you cannot solve your problems in the way that you think you should be able to solve your problems – because if you could, then you would probably would have done it already. Psychotherapy works on the idea that we are trapped in a worldview that we think should help release us from our problems, but in fact it is part of the problem. So in psychotherapy what you are trying to do is work with people so that gradually they become less tied to the worldview that is troubling them so much, and they start to see different possibilities and new ways of dealing with the world start to emerge. Spiritually, the same sort of principle applies. In a ‘spiritual psychotherapy’, you are seeking to be free from a world perspective (the kind of worldview of our time), which is materialistic and causes us all sorts of anxieties about mortality, wanting to possess more, having concerns about the future etc. That seems to be the neurosis of our time, but working with that – seeing the limits of that, becoming less tied to that, could happen through a process that might be like psychotherapy, and could be liberating and lead to these different perceptions.
KP: How do you think the dominant worldview of our time is at war with our ability to see spiritually? Do we have the vocabulary for this at the moment, or is there language and ways of thinking that need to be reintroduced?
MV: I certainly think that spiritual sight which would have been regarded as the best form of sight until about 300 or 400 years ago, that has reversed and now everybody has to give a nod to materialism some way or another. There is of course some reason for that, because materially our world is a lot easier to live in than the world was a few hundred years ago – so it’s not all bad…I would much rather have a tooth ache in 2018 than in 1618, that’s fair enough. But I think the gains come at a tremendous cost. We don’t appreciate the inner life of things anymore, we appreciate very much their exterior life – which science reveals so amazingly, but we don’t directly experience the soul of things and how they have a kind of vitality and liveliness which complements our own vitality and liveliness. And so spiritual sight would be about reawakening to the inside of the whole world, as well as our own inside. That is an expression of a chap called Owen Barfield who I am very influenced by, he said that consciousness is not one thing stuck onto the rest of everything else, it is the inside of the whole world. Nowadays we need to learn to participate with this inner life afresh.
KP: It seems that one of the problems in society is with what might be called expressive individualism, this obsession with the self – and so, in a sense you might think that one of the issues is thinking too much about yourself, and so one of the ways to heal yourself is to start doing things for other people, like stop thinking so much and just start doing. Do you think there is any truth in that?
MV: I think you have to be careful there, because that kind of advice can become a bit of a moral burden, saying that ‘you should be doing this or you should be doing that’. That actually just makes you more self-obsessed because you just feel guilty for not doing enough etc. I think the key to becoming an individual is to love yourself enough to forget yourself. Knowing yourself is part of that, because you become more at ease with yourself and more comfortable in your own skin, and then you start to become aware that there is more than just yourself. Iris Murdoch, the great Platonist, had a great way of putting it, she said that ‘love is the painful realisation that something other than myself is real’. That only really begins by loving yourself enough to be able to forget yourself. In psychotherapy we say that the problem with narcissism is not loving yourself, it’s not being able to love yourself, so that you become self-preoccupied with the self. Your whole life becomes an effort to love yourself, in ways which will never fully deliver.
KP: In terms of where you look for answers to the question of how one sees spiritually, some of these answers for you lie in the great thought of great thinkers. Are there ways of trying to see spiritually that are not so cognitively demanding and intellectual?
MV: Take something like music. I think music is way we all have of hearing spiritually. The reason is that the scientific description of music is just the notes, but what the physical description never gets is the melody, or the meaning or the emotion – which is the real impact that music makes. That real impact is partly emotional, partly psychological, but I think it is also spiritual because it awakens us to the transcendent or to ‘the more’ as William James puts it. When you’re immersed in music, it is quite as real as anything you could touch. So things like music, art, poetry help us access the spiritual. Owen Barfield thought that words have a kind of soul, and that the art of the poet is to put words in an order that releases the soul, so you have a felt sense of what the words are doing, as well as just a descriptive sense. He said imagine a prose writer writing the two words ‘old prophets’. When you hear that phrase you think of people who had a gift to see the future who were either elderly or lived a long time ago, it’s kind of a description. But the poet would say ‘prophets old’, and that phrase with the inversion has a very different resonance. It makes you think of the spirit of those prophets. It almost feels like it’s conjuring their presence. That’s the kind of thing that poetry does. It puts words in an unexpected order that releases the inside of the words, as it were. The best kind of spiritual poetry takes you to the edge, and encourages you to look over the edge because of the way the words are put together.
KP To what extent do you think learning to see spiritually is something we must learn to do individually, or is it something that can and should be done in community?
MV: It’s both an individual and collective undertaking. You must know yourself and work on yourself in order to see more. But seeing spiritually is greatly aided by engaging with what others have already discerned and conveyed. They offer a path that you can follow, though you yourself have to follow it.
Mark has a series of videos on the question of how we learn to see spiritually, these can be found here.