Author Jules Evans, best known for his fantastic book Philosophy for Life and blog of the same name, was one of the first people we interviewed here for the site. Now Jules has a new book out, The Art of Losing Control, and we reached out to learn more about it. Both our interview and his new book provide a glimpse into something that is almost antithetical to Stoicism: losing self-control and fully surrendering to the moment. It’s important that Stoics—and indeed any student of any school—seek out and speak with people who they might disagree with. The fact that Jules no longer considers himself a Stoic gives him an interesting perspective on the lessons and exercises we talk about here. On top of that, Jules went above and beyond in his search for ecstasy, interviewing professors, musicians, artists, to dance classes and psychedelic drugs. We asked Jules about all this, the near-death experience that was the seed for this book, why he no longer considers himself a Stoic, what Stoicism misses in its focus on self-control and much more. Enjoy!
Can you tell us the story of you falling 30ft, breaking your back and femur, and how this somehow led to the creation of your new book, The Art of Losing Control?
Well…it’s not an easy experience to describe briefly. But here goes: I had PTSD and other emotional problems from the ages of roughly 18 until 24, and feared I was permanently damaged. Then, in 2001, I had a bad skiing accident, where I smashed through a barrier on the side of a cliff, on a mountain in Norway. That’s when I fell 30 ft. I landed and knocked myself unconscious — except I wasn’t unconscious. Instead, I had a sort of spiritual epiphany, which much later I discovered was quite similar to other people’s near-death experiences. It involved a feeling of immersion in a white light, which was intelligent and loving. It made me feel deeply loved and OK, and it made me believe there is something in us that can’t be permanently damaged or lost. It also helped me realize that what was perpetuating my suffering was my own negative beliefs – a very Stoic idea. After that experience, I felt very healed and rejuvenated for several months. However, the old habits of depression and anxiety came back, and I realized I needed a more systematic way to change the old beliefs. That’s when I turned to Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Years later, when I was 35, I wrote a book called Philosophy for Life, in which I explained how Stoicism helped me, and many other people. But for my second book, I wanted to look at moments of ecstasy – moments where we go beyond our ordinary self and feel deeply connected to something greater than us – and how they can be healing. This book is very inspired by the psychologist William James, who was very fond of Stoicism, but recognised that sometimes people were healed not through rational self-help, but rather by altering their body, or by surrendering to something greater than themselves (nature, the cosmos, a higher power etc).
You said that you can no longer call yourself Stoic and that the philosophy has a number of blind spots. Any good philosopher should love being challenged, so tell us what you think those are? Where do you see yourself now?
Stoicism is hugely helpful for people when they are in crisis — it gives them a sense of control amid chaos. However, it can be over-individualistic, it can overemphasise becoming an invulnerable fortress, and it can overemphasise rationality as the only path to healing and flourishing. There are other ways to find healing – particularly ways where people shift their consciousness somehow, and it gives them a moment of epiphany or liberation. In The Art of Losing Control, I look at some of these alternative ways to healing — things like dancing and music therapy, psychedelic therapy, contemplation, sex, experiences in nature. I know that Stoicism talks a lot about nature, but the beauty of nature doesn’t affect and heal us through rational analysis, does it? It affects us in a different way, by absorbing and shifting our consciousness.
I argue in the book that healthy societies like ancient Greece manage to balance the rational and the ecstatic, the Socratic and the Dionysian. Without Dionysian ecstasy, Stoicism can become arid and over-rationalistic. Without Socratic ethical practice, Dionysian ecstasy can be morally dangerous, or just a rush.
A big part of Stoicism is after all about self-control. What does one miss by focusing too much on that?
One can remain rather inhibited socially and emotionally — unable to lose yourself in moments of festivity or love. A Stoic would be horrified by the idea of ‘losing oneself in the moment’, but I think an Aristotelian would argue there is an appropriate time and place for ecstasy, for letting go, for dancing and carousing, for connecting to the strangers we live among. And I don’t think the Stoics were great lovers! To love someone is to make yourself vulnerable to suffering. I am a very self-contained, self-controlled person, very averse to risk. The price of that is I am quite solitary and withdrawn. I’ve been trying to learn to open up in order to make more room for love in my life.
What were the most memorable experiences you went through writing this book? What lessons did you draw from them? After all, you did a lot—from a Vipassana meditation retreat to the Alpha course to psychedelic drugs to excruciating dance classes to so much more.
The most full on thing I did was join a charismatic Christian church for a year! You have to understand – no one goes to church anymore in the UK. Like, only 2% do every Sunday. Church has become something rather weird and marginal in British culture, which I think is quite different to the US. And I’ve never really been into Christianity. But I was curious as to whether Christian culture offered some of the ideas of virtue ethics (like Stoicism), but in a format that had more room for community, festivity, love, vulnerability and ecstatic experience. So I joined this charismatic Christian church for a while, and actually converted to Christianity for a bit, which put a lot of my newsletter readers right off!
After about 18 months, however, I decided I just couldn’t kid myself that I was a proper Christian. I never convinced myself that Jesus was actually God, as opposed to an inspired prophet. Nor did I convince myself about Christian eschatology – the fall, the redemption, the second coming, the final war etc. I think I managed to open myself up to Christian culture, to appreciate it more – the buildings, the poetry, the artwork, the music, the ritual, and the relationships. I ended up as I began – a believer in the perennial philosophy (i.e. the idea that there are many different paths to God, including atheist Stoicism). But I do have more sympathy for Christianity and think it would be a pity if it disappeared entirely from British culture. (Of course, it’s a very different situation in the US, considering the political power of evangelicals).
What is the one change that you’ve made in your day-to-day life that has been the most impactful after writing this book?
I now meditate every day, and end with an affirmation to be kind to myself and other beings. I think self-acceptance and compassion is probably healing at a deeper level than rationality.
You’ve interviewed professors, musicians, artists and people from all walks of life for this book. What is a conversation that you think about often, and why? What was the specific lesson or quote that you refer back to the most?
Crikey. Well…in this book I was looking for answers to big questions: Is there a God, can we know and connect with Him / Her / It, is there life after death, how do we know if an ecstatic experience is real and healthy or false and unhealthy. I really went for it! And often, on the journey, I just felt really confused and lost. It was different to the first book, about Stoicism, where I felt very sure that Stoicism is helpful and healing and rational, and I could condense my arguments into a 10-minute powerpoint.
This book is about a less rational and more mysterious aspect of human existence, but it’s no less powerful. So the conversation that sticks with me is with an old Zen master who I met in India. I went on a retreat at his centre, and on this retreat, you could have one-on-one meetings with the master, and ask him a question. I asked him some hardcore questions, about God, karma and so on.
And he would often reply ‘I don’t know!’ I really liked that this guru was prepared to say ‘who knows!’ And I’m trying to learn to be comfortable with sometimes not knowing, not having definite answers to life’s big questions.
A reader sent me this prayer by Teilhard de Chardin last week – she obviously decided I needed praying for. I think it sums up what I mean about being OK with not always knowing where you are:
Your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.