Spirituality: Rational and Radical

December 15, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

On Friday, an adapted version of my speech from our first public event in our Spirituality series: ‘Taking Spirituality Seriously’ was published at the website of New Humanist magazine. Some initial positive reactions from Twitter can be found here.

It felt good to publish this piece at the site of the Rationalist Association, a 125-year-old charity dedicated to reason, science & secularism. Choosing to do so does not mean that we are exclusively interested in forms of spirituality that are atheistic or secular, but it helps to fulfill one of the objectives of our extended inquiry into ‘Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain’, which is to defactionalise discussions on such matters.

Most people sense that spirituality is about much more than beliefs in unseen forces and attachment to tribal identities. However, to develop a constructive alternative account we need to draw the discussion away from competing clusters of perspectives on the nature and meaning of the universe (theistic, atheistic, spiritual but not religious, agnostic etc) and back towards human practices and experiences that ground spirituality in our lives, where we can see its universal relevance and political importance.

In the New Humanist essay, I attempt to draw out the link between a particular understanding of spirituality and the pervasive human struggle to close the gap between our ideals and our actions, or how to (as Gandhi apparently didn’t say..) be the change we want to see the world.

Spirituality is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation 

A couple of extracts:

Taking Spirituality Seriously:

“For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political…” – Russell Brand.

Russell Brand’s iconoclastic call for a ‘revolution in consciousness’ was refreshing, half-baked, and overblown. It was refreshing because modern political debates have become too tactical and technocratic to inspire political hope, and the idea that politics has lost touch with deeper foundations rings true. But it was half-baked because there was no clarity about the nature of the link between the spiritual and the political, nor what it would mean to develop it in practice. And it was overblown because as anybody who takes spiritual progress seriously knows, a shift in consciousness may place your work in perspective, but it never does the work for you. To paraphrase an old Zen saying: before enlightenment – use your vote, after enlightenment – use your vote.

‘Spirituality’ may be awkward, embarrassing even, but it’s extremely interesting. The capacious term lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation (….)

Our Ground and our Place

For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. Our shared recognition of a brute existential reality brings us back to our common humanity. Life as such is precious to all of us, but our experience of it becomes more visceral, shared, and tangible when it is threatened, as witnessed for instance in the solidarity and kinship widely experienced in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

Such moments illustrate a useful and generative distinction. Common to the three main manifestations of the spiritual highlighted above, and therefore fundamental to the concept, spirituality is about our ground, rather than our place. This contrast stems from Buddhism, but it can also be inferred in Heiddeger’s emphasis on the philosophical primacy of the lived experience of being human, or as he puts it, ‘Being-there’.

By our ground I mean the most basic facts of our existence: that we are here at all, that we exist in and through this body that somehow breathes, that we build selves through and for others, that we’re a highly improbable part of an unfathomable whole, and of course, that we will inevitably die. Another way to characterise the relevance of our ground comes from the psychotherapist Mark Epstein who refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’

The psychotherapist Mark Epstein refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’ 

As anybody who has faced a life threatening illness will know, reflecting on our ground heightens the importance of not postponing our lives, of using the time we have for what really matters to us. And yet, research on the main regrets of the dying indicates the sad fact that we rarely actually do this – most of us do in fact postpone our lives.

And why? Because the world perpetuates our attachment to our place, by which I mean our constructed identities, our fragile reputations, our insatiable desires. We get lost in our identification with our place, and all the cultural signifiers of status that come with it: our dwellings, our salaries, our clothes, our Twitter followers. As T.S. Eliot put it: “We are distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning.”

The full article (3000+ words) can be read here:


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  • Blake

    I found your article compelling. It was refreshing to explore spirituality as a living expression in how we live our lives, and further, requisite to a reinvigorated politics.
    It is time that we cease to draw an imaginary line between the rational and the spiritual – both are sides to the same consciousness that animates us and life. We have to redefine both within a non-dual framework.
    I’ve discovered that we need to re-examine the underlying philosophical beliefs that characterise our current culture – as you mention Cartesian philosophical constructs no longer serve to define who we are nor can science explain consciousness and free-will. At the same time we don’t want to escape from the world following an ancient eastern philosophy that doesnt allow for an evolution and development in consciousness.
    That discovery of our true ‘ground’ as you described is essential: the continual rediscovery of our deeper selves when we meditate is akin to a system re-boot – it allows us a larger and holistic perspective and a renewed sense of creativity and of what’s possible – and importantly allows us to engage with others more freely without having to defend our often very fixed positions.
    In fact, to take your piece further I am finding that a coherent and vital politics will be one where people are able to meet together beyond the fixed positions and to allow a collective intelligence to emerge, bringing forth common truths, new ideas, even solutions to the challenges we have created for ourselves as a society.
    Our self-identity becomes meaningful in relationship with others, no longer as separate identities fighting each other but grounded in a deeper existential trust in the life process, including ourselves.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks for the comments.
      Blake: if you haven’t already, you will enjoy Robert Kegan’s work. What you say about people meeting together – a kind of post-tribal politics- is arguably a challenge to consciousness – that ability to see beyond one’s own position and take the perspective of the other is a significant developmental achievement. Kegan’s RSA talk gives an overview but I would strongly recommend his books too.
      Benjamin: yes, we do need leaders/mentors/gurus/advisors and so forth, and they do tend to arise, I’m just not sure we should depend on them or wait for them.

      • Blake

        Thanks Jonathan
        I have 3 responses – firstlyI have listened to Robert Kegan’s talk at the RSA – spectacular: I wasn’t aware of his work before then. Secondly I’m not sure we have to take on the perspective of the other – though my experience in the context of refined group communications has been that there emerges between people a kind of vortex where anyone can say something authentic and there is a sort of deeper understanding that somehow miraculously* no one is separate and it’s all one experience. Thirdly I’m wondering if this thread is something that some RSA fellows are actively looking in to – how to bring politics and spirituality together into the mainstream? I see many common threads in practices like Theory U. I’m also very interested in the philosophical work of Charles Eisenstein, who I think is a brilliant voice for our post-modern generation working towards what the next Story will be.

  • Benjamin D

    This is great Jonathan. Best wishes for 2014.

  • Benjamin D

    If I had to attach a label to myself it would probably be a ‘secular spiritualist’ believing in the ‘power’ of mindfulness and meditation.

    This kind of spiritualism for me is essentially self-organising, i.e. not directed by any guru, god or organisation, but borne out of learning and life experience as a defence against anxiety and sadness.

    The problem is for me, that self-organising spirituality essentially does not change the world, only the individual. Increasing awareness of spirituality may mean that if a large number of people change themselves, they therefore change the world. But, I’m not convinced.

    Don’t we, as human beings, need leaders, need figureheads to change things? And isn’t that therefore a limitation of both secular and SBNR spirituality?

  • Sneldog

    To change ourselves is to change the world: the world we see is a product of our experience. It is not the world we think others see, but rather our own experience of the world that a valid definition of spirituality must accommodate. This doesn’t let us off the hook for trying to help, with wisdom and sincerity, in situations where we perceive suffering. An honest, thorough examination of fundamental questions – “Who am I? What happens when I die?” – will lead us to the conclusion that we benefit from trying to help others find a release from suffering, and attain happiness.