Mysticism would seem to be an impulse from which we cannot escape.  Its revival in the late nineteenth century, with its séances, fairies and research into extra-sensory perception – all of which absorbed the attentions of leading figures such as W B Yeats and Arthur Conan-Doyle – was both an attempt to bring scientific rigour to the mystical, but also a reaction to rational positivism and what was perceived as the mechanistic, impersonal nature of the industrial age.  In factories, people become machines, which felt like a reduction, a step away from humans as connected with their environment, a step away from the “natural”.  The same impulse is evident in the revival of Wiccan beliefs, brought to wide audiences by Gerald Gardner with his extraordinary descriptions of Wiccans gathering in the New Forest to fend off Nazi invasion.  It would seem evident that, to many people, scientific empiricism and materialism are simply not enough.  Might we even suggest that it was more that just snarky japery that prompted nearly 400,000 people to call themselves “Jedi” in the 2001 census?  Maybe not, but we’d be brave to pretend that the call of mysticism is not present in the 21st century.

I would suggest there is an irony in this urge.  I would argue that it is increasing scientific knowledge that is the well-spring of these revived mystic impulses.  Scientific discovery has massively enlarged the universe; from Aristotle’s fixed crystal sphere pockmarked with stars, with the sun and planets revolving around the Earth, we now look up and instead see endlessly broiling, twisting forces that have led to a massively old, massively huge universe.  When we look up, we are in fact looking back billions of years, as well as out billions of miles.  This monstrously shifted sense of scale has made our traditional value frameworks – religions and such like – feel very paltry and pettifogging.  To me, religious explanations and doctrines feel so very, very human sized, so very obviously concocted by people to explain and rationalise small scale human interactions, and not a fourteen billion year old universe accelerating apart at relativistic speeds.  With our eyes opened by this wider universe, this literally cosmic perspective, the space for mysticism to reappear is created.

Our sense of what we do with mysticism is also worth exploring.  As it manifests, mysticism requires the belief that the extraordinary becomes real.  Historically, this was translated through religiosity.  Thus St Teresa’s racily erotic testimony is both manifested and understood (both to herself and others) as an expression of her Catholicism.  She was not alone; other examples are Hildegard von Bingen and our own Margery Kempe, a fourteenth century Norfolk noblewoman who had visions of her marriage to Christ.  It is noticeable that the stories of all these people share, to a greater or lesser extent, the sense that their personal testimony of visions and direct encounters with the divine were regarded with (at best) uncertainty by traditional (male) power structures.  The Sufi tradition in Islam has faced similar challenges.  Interestingly, scepticism about mysticism remains, except that the framework in which mysticism is understood or mediated has changed.  Instead of being seen as a manifestation of religious belief, the tendency now is to frame what might be called mystic experiences as related to poor mental health.  Thus the mystic experience of speaking directly with angels or, in Margery Kempe’s testimony, Jesus himself, would probably now prompt a medical response, if there was a belief – on the part of a medical professional, i.e. a new form of power hierarchy, as opposed to a priest – that the expression of such beliefs was likely to lead to harm to others or the individual.  It is no coincidence that counter-terrorism specialists work (ominously) closely with mental health professionals to identify and work with individuals whose mystic experiences – my phrase, not theirs – may prompt a desire to take action in an ostensibly religious cause.  Though I wouldn’t claim any expertise, there’s also a link here to R D Laing’s belief that what the rest of us might call “delusions”, that is, mere symptoms of unmanaged schizophrenia, are in fact true manifestations of an individual’s lived experience, and have to be engaged with as such.  As any hard-edged existentialist will tell you, if reality is merely that which we observe, then a mystical experience has as much legitimacy as, let us say, the data from of the ALMA observatory in the Atacama Desert in Peru, for example.  This is, of course, nonsense; a mystical experience, regardless of its intensity, has no predictive value, unlike a well-designed scientific experiment.  However, this doesn’t mean that R D Laing’s conclusion – that therapy should address the lived experience of the patient rather than just dismiss it as a symptom – has no value.  As the Prevent counsellors working with troubled young people idealising violent extremism will tell you, it is through direct engagement with their beliefs, perceptions and spirituality that change can come about.

Finally, mysticism has a physicality that’s worth exploring.  If the mystical is the unearthly becoming real to us, then it is possible to suggest that our own physicality is part of the mystical experience.  From this, one can argue that we can each engineer the circumstances in which the mystical is more likely to happen to us.  This might connect with Buddhist practices, and as Margery Kempe’s life of pilgrimage and witness undeniably showed, when the Catholic told repeatedly told countless women that their role was to be a “bride of Christ” then eventually someone is going to take you at your word and believe that this is literally the case.  The repetition of this ideology must have played a part in its development in Kempe’s mind.  Similarly, as Clay pointed out a few episodes ago, if you want to have a mystical experience, just try going without sleep for a few days; classic symptoms include speaking with people no one else can see.  The possibility that the likelihood of mystical experiences can be enhanced through our personal physicality prompts the idea that we can, and should, alter our reality through imbibing mind-altering chemicals.  Again, heavyweight existentialism comes into play; if reality is nothing more than our observations, if we change our perceptions, that is, our ability to observe, then reality changes too.  The belief that altering one’s brain chemistry is desirable – from the lighthearted fetishisation of coffee in the Havana Cafe podcasts, to the grim excesses of a High Street on a Saturday night – is everywhere.  I would even be so bold as to suggest that the Islamic practice of fasting during Ramadan aims to link the physical experience to the spiritual.  The ubiquity of the desire to change our physicality in pursuit of changed our perceptions would suggest that the impulse we see in mystics – the desire to bring an alternate reality to physical manifestation – is alive and well.

New Year’s Eve. What better time for a wander through the woods and some contemplation before all of the festivities start this evening.

Hope you all have a great night and if you haven’t gotten around to signing up for the 30 Day Contemplation Challenge tap here and tell us where to send it. It all starts up tomorrow! 🥂

Hear some words from the woods:

“I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it. – Albert Einstein”

I’m not sure I would want to live forever, certainly not if I had to endure the human condition as it is now with our relative morality that rewards those with the most power.  You only have to look at the stuff Trump is allowed to get away with to know the system is broken.  Why would I want an eternity of that?

The more important question though is What are the ethical consequences of immortality technology?

Francesca Minerva and Adrian Rorheim:

 Immortality has gone secular. Unhooked from the realm of gods and angels, it’s now the subject of serious investment – both intellectual and financial – by philosophers, scientists and the Silicon Valley set. Several hundred people have already chosen to be ‘cryopreserved’ in preference to simply dying, as they wait for science to catch up and give them a second shot at life. But if we treat death as a problem, what are the ethical implications of the highly speculative ‘solutions’ being mooted?

So far there are two hypothetical options for achieving immortality – rejuvenation technology and mind uploading:

Like a futuristic fountain of youth, rejuvenation promises to remove and reverse the damage of ageing at the cellular level. Gerontologists such as Aubrey de Grey argue that growing old is a disease that we can circumvent by having our cells replaced or repaired at regular intervals. Practically speaking, this might mean that every few years, you would visit a rejuvenation clinic. Doctors would not only remove infected, cancerous or otherwise unhealthy cells, but also induce healthy ones to regenerate more effectively and remove accumulated waste products. This deep makeover would ‘turn back the clock’ on your body, leaving you physiologically younger than your actual age. You would, however, remain just as vulnerable to death from acute trauma – that is, from injury and poisoning, whether accidental or not – as you were before.  

And then there’s mind uploading:

…in which your brain is digitally scanned and copied onto a computer. This method presupposes that consciousness is akin to software running on some kind of organic hard-disk – that what makes you you is the sum total of the information stored in the brain’s operations, and therefore it should be possible to migrate the self onto a different physical substrate or platform. This remains a highly controversial stance. However, let’s leave aside for now the question of where ‘you’ really reside, and play with the idea that it might be possible to replicate the brain in digital form one day.

Although cool, it presents some ethical problems:

Some philosophers, such as David Chalmers, think there is a possibility that your upload would appear functionally identical to your old self without having any conscious experience of the world. You’d be more of a zombie than a person, let alone you. Others, such as Daniel Dennett, have argued that this would not be a problem. Since you are reducible to the processes and content of your brain, a functionally identical copy of it – no matter the substrate on which it runs – could not possibly yield anything other than you.

What happens if you run the copy while the original you is till around?:

One popular position in philosophy is that the youness of you depends on remaining a singularperson – meaning that a ‘fission’ of your identity would be equivalent to death. That is to say: if you were to branch into you1 and you2, then you’d cease to exist as you, leaving you dead to all intents and purposes. Some thinkers, such as the late Derek Parfit, have argued that while you might not survive fission, as long as each new version of you has an unbroken connection to the original, this is just as good as ordinary survival.

This opens up a load more questions for me like fundamentally what makes you YOU? And what happens when your copy starts having different experiences from you, is it still you or does it become it’s own self? Mind-boggling for sure.

Curious to know your thoughts?

Hello Fellow Seekers,

Sarah and I taking a short break (well Sarah is anyway!). So over the next 2 weeks instead of a podcast episode, we have a little assignment for you. Listen to the audio below to find out what it is:

I’m of an age to remember when time was not consumed by tiny screens.  But the world has turned and the tiny screen is everything – phone, bank, TV, radio, camera, alarm clock, shop, book, game, calendar, friend, brain.

In this poetic short film by Max Stossel & Sander van Dijk they asks:

In the Attention Economy, technology and media are designed to maximize our screen-time. But what if they were designed to help us live by our values?


As a companion piece to the podcast, we’ve created a curated newsletter of interesting stories from around the Internet that will bend your mind. Hence the title of the newsletter, Bending the Spoon, which many of you sci-fi geeks will recognise, from the banner image, is lifted from The Matrix.

Anyway, we wanted to offer you something to tide you over between episodes. Plus we have plans to ramp up the activity on the blog as well, so add us to your RSS reader of choice. we use Feedly.

Here are links to the first two issues of Bending the Spoon:

#Issue 1 – Bending the Spoon

#Issue 2 – Sisyphus is Happy


And if you do enjoy, feel free to subscribe.



Ever heard of Kodo Sawaki? We hadn’t until we stumbled upon this article in

Basically, Kodo Sawaki is considered to be one of the most significant Zen masters of his time for bringing Zen practice into the lives of laypeople and popularizing the ancient tradition of sewing the kesa. He had a troubled life growing up, running away from home at 16. He was then drafted to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.  For the rest of the story, check out:


Our favourite quote from the list is this:

“Our whole life long you’re completely out of your mind because you think it’s obvious that there is a “you” and “the others”. You put on an act to stand out in a crowd, but in reality there’s neither “you” nor “the others”. When you die, you’ll understand.”

Let us know which one is your favourite.

Scroll to top