Taking Spirituality Seriously

October 2, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Later this month I will be giving a short talk at the beginning of an RSA public event introducing the project outlined in The Brains Behind Spirituality. I am arguing that we need a reappraisal of the cultural and social value of spirituality as essential foundational work for deepening our understanding of a range of practical and policy issues.

As outlined in the above essay, rather than thinking of ‘the spiritual’ as an aspect of religion, or as an alternative to religion, we want to view it through the lens of what we have learnt (or perhaps remembered) about human nature over the last few decades; including the fact that our cognition has evolved and it is embodied in flesh, embedded in culture and extended through technology; we have a fundamentally social nature, we are burdened and blessed by automaticity, and we now understand that our ‘self’ may not be unitary and soul-like but rather in some sense illusory, protean or virtual, and created and maintained mostly through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

The resulting conception of the spiritual is evolving, but some core aspects of what might be considered central to spirituality – meaning, belief and morality for instance, do start to look very different. In the talk I will develop the idea that meaning is best understood as embodied and made, that belief is more about social and cultural norms than factual propositions and that morality is best understood as dispositional rather than rational; not so much about adhering to ethical precepts, but closely connected with our idea of self and our capacity to experience it as illusory and constructed, while also working towards the experience of integration.

It is a daunting task. In about twelve minutes I will have to cover a lot of ground, so for now I wanted to try to hone the part about the rationale for the project, which also relates to why the RSA might be doing something like this. I currently see three main reasons why it is timely and important to enrich our idea of spirituality:

In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and less likely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration

1) In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and unlikely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration – of what we should be aiming for – and ‘wellbeing’, a relatively static concept, doesn’t always suffice.

2) In light of the intractability of various social and ecological challenges, include climate change, security, and public health, we need to deepen and widen our understanding of what ‘behaviour change‘ might mean.

3) There are several policy domains where ‘spirituality’ is recognised as being important – education, end of life care, mental health, but the concept is rarely unpacked in detail and needs a sounder grounding in what we know about ourselves.

To take these in turn:

1) Beyond wellbeing: aspiration in austerity.

The extent to which money makes you happy is complex, and to some extent unresolved, but the evidence appears to indicate that, at best, money brings diminishing returns for wellbeing. More to the point, in the context of public debt, austerity, and increasingly salient environmental limits on economic expansion, it is likely to be harder for most people to meet material aspirations for the foreseeable future. It is therefore timely to look more closely at what non-material aspiration looks like.

The issue is not so much the familiar ethical question of how we should live, but the more subtle one of how we can grow and develop over time rather than merely change. If what I seek to improve or increase is not necessarily my wealth, what is it? The domain for such questions used to be philosophy and religion, but these questions have a new urgency in the developed world, and we may need to look in new places for the answers.

One such place is ‘How much is enough?’ by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, which is a marvellous book (Rowan Williams called it ‘crisp and pungent’) with the underlying claim in the virtue ethics tradition that our proper collective aim is to help people not just to be happy, but to have reasons to be happy.

You don’t need spirituality to have reason to be happy, but it could help rather a lot. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls spirituality ‘a signature strength’ which is an important aspect of resilience, and he suggests it is about “knowing where you fit in the larger scheme,” as he writes in his book, Flourish.

There are abundant definitions of spirituality, and my particular framing of spirituality is gradually emerging. I am beginning to think of it as a mixture of three inter-related fundamental aspects of how we relate to each other and the world: perspectives (world views, life stances, values), practices (meditation, rituals, customs) and experiences (belonging, aliveness, transcendence). On this framing, spiritual growth is about enriching our capacity to develop and align our perspectives, practices and experiences. In this sense spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.

2) Deepening behaviour change: ‘improving the grain’ of human nature.

The hegemonic behaviour change perspective – libertarian paternalism (‘nudge‘) takes many aspects of human nature as givens- things we should just accept and work with rather than try to change. Policymakers in the UK and many other countries are increasingly advised to ‘go with the grain’ of human nature, as if this grain was invariant and inflexible. This perspective has its place, but is largely blind to the potential of spiritual practice.

spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.

To take two examples, while much of human behaviour is automatic, and heavily influenced by the choice architectures of the surrounding environment, messenger effects, social norms and a range of other influences, meditators who have cultivated the capacity for mindfulness have much greater control over their reactions. Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control. This may not make them entirely immune to all cognitive biases, but it does show the possibility that we can change our ‘grain’.

Second, in the Summer RSA Journal, there was an article about ‘The Biological limits of empathy‘ by Steven Asma who makes the superficially compelling case that there are limits to how much we can expand our empathy:

“If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers…Our tribes of kith and kin are ‘affective communities’ and this unique emotional connection with our favourites entails great generosity and selfless loyalty. There is an upper limit to our tribal emotional expansion and that limit makes universal empathy impossible.”

Now I am not saying he is strictly wrong, but I strongly suspect he hasn’t heard of metta bhavana, or ‘loving kindness meditation‘, which is precisely about expanding this sense of empathy and care beyond our natural impulses. If every child were to learn this practice and be supported in doing it regularly with supervision and advice, the ‘upper limit’ to empathy and ‘emotional expansion’ may not hold at all.

Moreover, I have only skimmed the surface with just two forms of practice, from a predominantly Buddhist perspective. Other traditions would have things to say, and the Common Cause group may add that you don’t even need spiritual practice to illustrate this point, and that it is enough to prime people’s sense of caring about bigger-that-self problems to get them to think and act more generously and altruistically.

3) Informing spiritual needs and practices in specific domains.

Later this week RSA Education is hosting a workshop on “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education‘ and although I don’t know the area well, I believe the ‘spiritual’ dimension is considered particularly hard to teach and assess.

One of the best references to inform this perspective is Guy Claxton’s Inaugural address to Bristol Graduate School of Education in 2002 called ‘Mind Expanding‘. He unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.

Claxton unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.

The claim is that if they don’t find such experiences in safe nurturing environments, they may seek them out elsewhere. So gangs may give belonging, crime may offer aliveness, drugs the experience of mystery and so forth. The point is definitely not to encourage such activities, but to recognise the legitimate spiritual need that legitimately seeks a less harmful form of expression.

There are also significant bodies of research on spirituality in nursing  and in psychiatry and no doubt numerous other domains that need to better understood and appreciated.

So that’s my current pitch for the relatively public aspect of the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ question of Spirituality. It’s very much a work in progress, so if you have made it this far, I would be very grateful for any thoughts.

Comments

  • Christopher Harding

    Thankyou for posting this – a very promising direction for the debate on spirituality. I have a question, however, about this part: ‘meaning is best understood as embodied and made… belief is more about social and cultural norms than factual propositions… morality is best understood as dispositional rather than rational; not so much about adhering to ethical precepts, but closely connected with our idea of self and our capacity to experience it as illusory and constructed.’ Are these descriptions of meaning/belief/morality that meaning-seekers, believers, and moral actors themselves would see as adequate? In other words, how easy or difficult is it, in practical terms, both to stand outside ‘spirituality’ and to commentate on it in this way, and yet also ‘do’ it or advocate it? Is this a Wittgensteinian language game that we can fruitfully both describe and play? I hope it is, but I’m not yet convinced (in general, that is, as opposed to just by your piece!) and would be very interested to hear your thoughts at some point – perhaps in a future post.

    On psychiatry as a ‘specific domain’ – you may already be aware of K.W. Fulford and Mike Jackson, but I would be happy to share references with you, if it’s helpful in developing this part of your case. Re. embodiment, there is a wonderful recent book from within the Christian tradition by Nancey Murphey – ‘Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?’ – that re-thinks Christianity and church along ‘spirited bodies’ lines. Might be of interest.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks for the comment. I think the first thing to say is that the paragraph you quote is a promissory note rather than a developed case, but on reflection the broader question doesn’t actually seem very problematic to me.

      There will obviously be limitations of language when it comes to describing ‘the meaning of meaning’ or ‘the experience of experience’…but that’s not really the issue, for me at least. The point is rather to challenge our everyday understandings of what it means for something to be meaningful, moral etc…to say, in effect, that there are many ways to look at such things, some of which are informed by relatively new understandings that many are not aware of.

      I am not sure what it means in terms of Wittgenstinian language games, but if this is what interests you I would recommend Francisco Varela’s work, particularly the journal of consciousness studies collection on first person experience where he speaks about acquiring expertise in discussing phenomenological states.

      Thanks for the psychiatry links. I have the feeling I haven’t answered your question, but hope we get a chance to talk at more length at some point.

      • Christopher Harding

        Many thanks for your reply, and for the tip about Francisco Varela. I hope we have the chance to discuss further, and I look forward to seeing what the ‘promissory note’ turns into! All the best, Chris.

  • MatthewMezey

    Perhaps it’s not always a reappraisal that is needed, just a remembering of what is already out there?

    The Fourth Way/Gurdjieff approach – which I’m involved with – has a very non-unitary approach to the self. It focuses on multiplicity, or subpersonalities or selves. Such approaches to ‘I positions’, narrative selves, or suchlike seem very common nowadays across psychology and therapy (see John Rowan’s recent book ‘Personification: Using the Dialogical Self in Psychotherapy and Counselling’).

    The Fourth Way folks also focus strongly on our automaticity, the illusion of free will, etc – and how to overcome this situation.

    Gurdjieffian practices seem fairly common in other schools of spirituality, such as AH Almaas’ ‘Diamond Approach’ – and Gurdjieff’s Enneagram is now ubiquitous, and people seem to find it helpful in their transformative work.

    It could be revealing to look at the established (and effective?) practices that different schools of spirituality are using, with a Social Brain lens?

    Matthew

  • Mariano

    About spirituality: Viktor Frankl’s works have helped me quite a lot in my life.

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  • http://www.brasington.co.uk/ Paul Brasington

    I’m just back from the first public discussion of this project.
    The session illustrated very obviously the danger for the project of using the word “spirituality”, because the discussion turned almost entirely around the possible value of faith (and, more or less, “faith based traditions” also known as religion). This would be fine if the enquiry was about the possible value of this kind of faith in societies that have largely lost it, but I think this enquiry is more interesting than that.

    Jonathan’s own definition of what he means by spirituality is broader than a faith-based definition, even if it courts the metaphysical when he suggests it’s about feeling we’re part of something bigger. I accept that the latter is a common apprehension, a mark of a yearning that most of us will have felt and many will have thought important, but what’s really interesting is whether it’s possible to understand this yearning in terms that don’t commit us to metaphysical propositions (I’ll come back to “propositions” in a minute), and which go further than the usual language of ethical humanism (a point touched on by Robert Rowland Smith in the discussion). I think it’s about our need to make sense of what we have, both in terms of articulated “meaning” and an embodied understanding of how we are. (I understand the next session will go further into what embodiment might mean and look forward to it – it’s particularly important when neuroscience is forcing us to revise what we could mean by “mind” as an embodied phenomenon, and that’s to say nothing about the way deep-rooted notions of identity and self are unravelling in front of us).

    The project offers the potential to understand this context, to explore how our ideas of self, meaning and even truth may be better understood as part of our socialised existence, with direct consequences for how we see the political sphere.

    Faith traditions have a necessary interest in all this, and Elizabeth Oldfield expressed that interest eloquently and sympathetically. But I can’t help thinking this interest is something for those traditions to work on themselves, or at least that it’s secondary to this enquiry, and as we saw tonight it drags the centre of gravity away from where it needs to be. In this light I agree with Madeleine Bunting that the S word (spirituality) is unhelpful at this stage, though perhaps for different reasons from hers: I was with her until she started agreeing with Jonathan that faith/belief is not about a rational assent to a proposition, but more a commitment to a way of being. Well, John Henry Newman traced similar ground in A Grammar of Assent, but it won’t do. I understand that an assent to a religious proposition may not be like accepting the evidence for human involvement in climate change, and I accept that such belief can feel like an immediate aspect of consciousness (in the same way that it makes no sense to say “I believe I’m holding a spoon” rather than “I’m holding a spoon”, but this “faith commitment” still rests on propositions about how things are, and if those propositions are contradicted by other things, it is not stupid to doubt them, or to doubt the wisdom of those who continue to cling to their commitment.

    But here am I falling myself into an argument about the special nature of religious faith (or its ordinary nature) and that’s to lose focus, illustrating yet again the danger of trying to think about these things even from the “perspective” (as someone put it) of spirituality.

    A final thought (for the moment): someone in the audience asked whether or not “intellect” might be a hindrance in this discussion. Here’s another lurking false opposition. I suppose we could try to define intellect as something narrow, something distinct from other ways of knowing, but the danger here is we underestimate what we are doing when we intellectualise. Intellect itself is embodied, shaped by our emotions and feelings. I seem to remember Iain McGilchrist talking about the problematic opposition of intellect and feeling, and I think ironically it probably belongs to a religious tradition which this enquiry should be trying to leave behind.

    To return to the starting point, about what we might mean when we speak of being “spiritual but not religious”, we should not get sidetracked by the quite different question of what hold “religious” still has on us; not if what we really want to understand is whether the idea of “spirituality” has any meaning outside or without religion. In order to do this it might be tactically necessary to drop the word “spirituality” and concentrate on developing a more useful set of terms.

  • Philip Colfox

    A great discussion to have started. I am told there is almost no research on what are the active ingredients in established faiths that make them so useful (to many); are any of them common across the faiths; and once we know what they are, what are their potential applications and benefits and does their efficacy vary between different types of people, what are those types of people and what is the overall opportunity therefore? Also please ask one of the speakers to improve their delivery, slower and louder. No mumbling please.

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  • Matteo O

    This article presents an interesting take on the concept
    of spiritual which, outside of religious circles, has always been difficult to
    pin down a definition for. As a seemingly profoundly spiritual person myself, I
    have long had no idea what the word spiritual actually means in real terms.
    Your three part model is pretty sound and as is necessary, avoids single
    word/phrase definitions that would fail to capture the multi-faceted nature of a
    view of human development that is not focused on the material.

    I am very much interested in the role of narration in maintaining the illusion
    of self through my own long-term commitment to meditation and psychological change
    work, and in particular the possibility of achieving some degree of continuing
    freedom from the emotional and psychological discomfort, confusion and
    limitations that emerges through being embedded in a narrative that is both
    personal (familial, relational, educational) and collective (maintained through
    shared language, symbols, beliefs, assumptions), which I believe, through
    personal experience, is perfectly possible, although much too infrequently
    achieved.

    Mindfulness has certainly emerged as the next big thing in addressing secular
    concerns with some form of self-development, self-awareness and the gaining of
    personal insight: although I suspect it is a spiritual technology that will end
    up serving the dominant cultural, political and economic norms, rather than
    challenge them. What we do see is that as a technology it can be used for a
    range of end results, I recently heard that the US army is employing it to help
    soldiers cope with stress, be calmer under fire and so forth. Traditional
    Buddhists have rightly criticised such uses along with its adoption by
    corporations to help their workers become more productive, rather than more
    aware perhaps of how inhuman it is to be part of a system that deepens and
    furthers exploitation and injustice in the world.

    There’s much that could be said here, but I’d point out that achieving success
    with the three pillars you offer is very much the realm of the fortunate. I
    would hope that the author recognises how much time, good fortune and relative
    health and education are required to achieve any distance in realising the
    three aspects offered as a model for spirituality.

    As a teacher of meditation and life coach, I see how few
    are able to find the time to engage in the deep critical work required to gain
    the perspectives and experience you write of. I offer most of my coaching work
    for free these days as morally I can no longer support the reality of the
    middle and upper-middle classes being the only ones that can typically afford
    to access the sort of support needed to gain perspective on their own personal
    narratives, their embedded beliefs, their attitudes and assumptions.

    Achieving a revolution
    in our collective sense of spirituality beyond religion would also involve a
    revolution in the world of work and the available time that members of society
    have for something other than sport, drink and consumerism, and perhaps in this
    case the idea of ‘New work’ from Frithjof Bergmann could be an area for
    consideration by the author as a shift of prioritisation in a direction to take
    as society.

    Finally, religion has long been adept at selling its products through
    guarantees of a better after life, release from the pain of existence and the
    possibility of becoming superhuman. Secular spirituality, humanism, atheism,
    have almost always been the realm of the intellectual elite. If you are
    interested in the idea of this three pillar model of spirituality emerging as a
    force for directing policy, my questions would be who is it aimed at? How would
    you make it a good sale? What is the role of community and how will the
    atomisation at the root of a capitalist perspective of the individual in
    society be tackled?

    This topic is indeed immense though and much, much more
    could and needs to be said. Good work though. I’ll be curious to see where you
    go with this project of yours. Let me know if you need a hand.

  • Matteo O

    This article presents an interesting take on the concept of spiritual which, outside of religious circles, has always been difficult to pin down a definition for. As a seemingly profoundly spiritual person myself, I have long had no idea what the word spiritual actually means in real terms. Your three part model is pretty sound and as is necessary, avoids single word/phrase definitions that would fail to capture the multi-faceted nature of a view of human development that is not focused on the material.

    I am very much interested in the role of narration in maintaining the illusion of self through my own long-term commitment to meditation and psychological change work, and in particular the possibility of achieving some degree of continuing freedom from the emotional and psychological discomfort, confusion and
    limitations that emerges through being embedded in a narrative that is both personal (familial, relational, educational) and collective (maintained through shared language, symbols, beliefs, assumptions), which I believe, through personal experience, is perfectly possible, although much too infrequently achieved.

    Mindfulness has certainly emerged as the next big thing in addressing secular concerns with some form of self-development, self-awareness and the gaining of personal insight: although I suspect it is a spiritual technology that will end up serving the dominant cultural, political and economic norms, rather than challenge them. What we do see is that as a technology it can be used for a range of end results, I recently heard that the US army is employing it to help soldiers cope with stress, be calmer under fire and so forth. Traditional Buddhists have rightly criticised such uses along with its adoption by corporations to help their workers become more productive, rather than more aware perhaps of how inhuman it is to be part of a system that deepens and furthers exploitation and injustice in the world.

    There’s much that could be said here, but I’d point out that achieving success with the three pillars you offer is very much the realm of the fortunate. I would hope that the author recognises how much time, good fortune and relative health and education are required to achieve any distance in realising the three aspects offered as a model for spirituality.

    As a teacher of meditation and life coach, I see how few are able to find the time to engage in the deep critical work required to gain
    the perspectives and experience you write of. I offer most of my coaching work for free these days as morally I can no longer support the reality of the middle and upper-middle classes being the only ones that can typically afford to access the sort of support needed to gain perspective on their own personal
    narratives, their embedded beliefs, their attitudes and assumptions.

    Achieving a revolution in our collective sense of spirituality beyond religion would also involve a revolution in the world of work and the available time that members of society have for something other than sport, drink and consumerism, and perhaps in this case the idea of ‘New work’ from Frithjof Bergmann could be an area for consideration by the author as a shift of prioritisation in a direction to take as society.

    Finally, religion has long been adept at selling its products through guarantees of a better after life, release from the pain of existence and the possibility of becoming superhuman. Secular spirituality, humanism, atheism, have almost always been the realm of the intellectual elite. If you are interested in the idea of this three pillar model of spirituality emerging as a force for directing policy, my questions would be who is it aimed at? How would you make it a good sale? What is the role of community and how will the atomisation at the root of a capitalist perspective of the individual in society be tackled?

    This topic is indeed immense though and much, much more
    could and needs to be said. Good work though. I’ll be curious to see where you go with this project of yours. Let me know if you need a hand.

  • Mike W

    I think the word “spiritual” has so much unhelpful baggage that it is difficult to use it constructively in conversation either generally or in specific domains.

    Even more problematic I fear is what happens when a group of people huddle together to consruct a profitable definition in a particular domain and then report the findings publicly, then the result is disconnected from a folk-psychology definition or doesn’t make even a reasonably-informed audience think through their own definitions.

    It’s rather like theologians having an image of their deity completely at odds with a layman, yet all claiming to be “as one”, or ecumenical groups making woolly pronouncements about “common spiritual goals” even as they push forward dogma that announces exactly the opposite.

    When I see a well-intentioned statement like “spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’” then I can’t help but think that is as much the creed of a suicide-bomber as it is of an altruistic suburban mum trying to appraise her life journey.

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