How to talk to spiritual swingers, religious diplomats and intellectual assassins
The following 4200 words are a distilled version of our forthcoming report on spirituality, scheduled for publication later this month, and they are also the text of a speech I gave at the final event. On the day, it felt wrong to be so controlled on a subject like spirituality so I chose to speak to the audience more directly, but here is the more considered version of what I planned to say:
Love, Death, Self and Soul:
Spirituality worth fighting for
Jonathan Rowson, RSA, November 19, 2014
The esteemed psychotherapist Carl Rogers said that what is most personal is most universal. I offer my perspective on leading our project on spirituality with that in mind, and start with a simple observation.
Spirituality does curious things to people’s facial expressions.
While running this project over the last two years I have noticed that facial expressions are the preludes to a range – three in particular – of more or less archetypal responses to conversations about spiritual matters.
The most welcome response comes from the ‘spiritual swingers’. Spiritual swingers perk up at the mention of the spiritual but look at you a little too eagerly and intensely for comfort. They are excited by all things non-material that point to a deeper, fuller, more cuddly world, but for them the spiritual appears to be one big unwieldy umbrella; everything from meditation to massages; mysticism to monasteries, moonshine to mindfulness. They’re up for anything, as long its ‘spiritual’.
Slightly more uneasy were my encounters with the ‘religious diplomats’ who look at you warmly but quizzically, because they support your endeavour but can’t figure out whether you are one of them at heart, validating or revitalising their view of the world, or perhaps you are seeking to supplant their established ways with something unhinged that they don’t altogether trust?
But the ‘intellectual assassins’ are the worst. They hear ‘spiritual’ and respond with a look of discomfort bordering on disgust, followed by disdainful frowns. They are the quickest to ask for a definition of the spiritual, but usually with the express purpose of taking it down with words of their own.
These imagined archetypes are, of course, projections, and I see myself in all of them. I’ve been in those new age shops, dubious and dabbling; I’ve returned to church hoping to belong again, I’ve meditated quite a bit, and through marriage I sometimes find myself in India, praying in temples and chanting to deities to whom I feel no allegiance, but feeling soothed and energised in the process nonetheless. But I’ve also had moments where the voice of the atheist sceptic felt not only lucid, honest and compelling, but also wise and compassionate.
When pushed to describe where my appreciation of the spiritual comes from I describe myself as culturally Christian, psychologically Buddhist, domestically Hindu and temperamentally sceptical.
Economically we may not be ‘in this together’, but existentially we clearly are.
I don’t think such a mixture of influences is particularly unusual. It might even be the emerging norm, at least partly because we are sensing that exploring these questions should not be private matter. Economically we may not be ‘in this together’, but existentially we clearly are.
So it seems to me we need a vision of what we are, why we are here and how we should live that is informed both by modern science, broadly conceived, and by religions – the rich traditions that have been asking these questions for millennia – without either being dominant or collapsing into each other.
I don’t mean to rehash the truism that science and religion might have things to learn from each other. My point is rather that in our wariness of religion we have tragically outsourced the social, cultural and psychological resources offered by the spiritual to a crypto-consumerist agenda built on casual identity projects exclusively for ‘spiritual swingers’. We therefore need to reimagine the spiritual in a way that is grounded and inclusive, such that it brings people together, mature enough to keep religious diplomats on board, and sophisticated enough to keep intellectual assassins appeased.
in our wariness of religion we have tragically outsourced the social, cultural and psychological resources offered by the spiritual to a crypto-consumerist agenda built on casual identity projects
Can we spiritualise society?
The distinguished political philosopher Roberto Unger says this: “If spirit is a name for the resistant and transcending faculties of the agent, we can spiritualize society. We can diminish the distance between who we are and what we find outside of ourselves.”
That’s a great encapsulation of why the spiritual is worth fighting for; both the term ‘spiritual’ as something with profound political relevance, and the metaphor of fighting, of recognising the spiritual is not facile or escapist, but where important human work needs to be done.
And Unger’s line also speaks to the two main aims of this project: First, to examine whether new understandings of human nature (‘who we are’) offered new insights into the value of the spiritual, and second, to be able to speak of the spiritual without embarrassment or equivocation, reclaiming the language as something we all have a stake in.
That kind of spirituality is worth fighting for because our major personal and collective challenges are ultimately spiritual in nature.
Scratch climate change long enough and you find our denial of death underneath – we are terrified by an unconscious awareness of an existential threat in both cases, and we need to look at it squarely instead.
Look deeply into unfettered capitalism and you find a deluded self scrambling to make itself real; we buy ourselves into existence, until we find we are fading again, and buy some more- what we need is to face up to the ultimate unreality of self, and work towards integration and transcendence.
Look deeply into unfettered capitalism and you find a deluded self scrambling to make itself real
Pay attention to the myriad addictions of apparently normal behaviour and you see what passes for everyday consciousness is a low-grade psychopathology– we are stuck on our smart phones, our social medicines, our updated status, but none bring deep satisfaction in the way that gradually mastery of consciousness through spiritual practice can.
And reflect on the epidemic of loneliness in big cities and you sense that love has lost its way. We are all surrounded by strangers who could so easily be friends, but we often the lack cultural permission we to get beyond merely ‘connecting’.
Speaking of the spiritual
Of course, some of you might think that speaking about the spiritual is missing the point entirely. It’s not about words or even ideas at all, but about getting beyond all that. You might also think that this whole conversation is a western middle class indulgence – look at us all with our designer clothes in this fancy room – we should all be on cushions somewhere attending to our breath, or feeding the hungry in selfless service, or travelling to an ashram to seek guidance of gurus who really know what’s going on.
At one level all that may be true, but while the subject matter of the inquiry is vast, the target has always been quite focused – to enable people to speak of the spiritual with significantly less equivocation or embarrassment. Five years in a public policy environment at the RSA tells me this task – far from being a niche distraction – is at the frontline of any viable strategy for social transformation.
Let me explain.
In a relatively calm and safe context, while talking through this project, a sympathetic philosopher friend recently asked me one of those disarmingly direct questions that oblige you to find a real answer: “So why exactly are you doing this?”
I responded viscerally, with a voice that came from a place inside me that was not altogether familiar: “Because I can’t understand why people don’t realise that spirituality is the most important thing to talk about.”
The conventional secularization narrative – the dwindling of religion, the triumph of reason and the death of God – simply hasn’t happened. Society is neither secular nor religious; we are both and neither; but our ambient spiritual pluralism has yet to crystallise in any recognisable form.
In this respect discussions about spirituality are typically postmodern; there is a disorienting sense of fragmentation but also excitement at the sense that we’re giving birth to something, and a hunger for a larger framework of meaning.
Society is neither secular nor religious; we are both and neither; but our ambient spiritual pluralism has yet to crystallise in any recognisable form.
The challenge of finding a more substantial and grounded public role for the spiritual needs to be taken seriously because it arises alongside a weakening of public institutions and ‘the commons’ more broadly, acute ecological crises, and widespread political alienation and democratic stress.
Rediscovering our ‘Ground’
So what might that kind of spirituality look like?
I have argued before that since part of the function of the spiritual is to highlight things we are moved by without conscious awareness, defining it too precisely is a mistake, but I have also said that the spiritual points to the distinction between our ‘ground’ – the fact that we are here at all; that we are born and will die, and our ‘place’ – our personalities and status quests.
With that in mind, to break through into public consciousness in an enduring way, spirituality needs to get five main relationships right; to religion, to media (especially social media), to wellbeing, to science and to power; and that can only be done with some sense of the relationships between those elements. I can’t go into each relationship in depth here, but that’s the essence of the challenge as I see it.
We need a viable commons, grounded in the depths of shared human experience, and it has to be about more than just good feelings; it is also about growth and maturation, which means it must speak to the shadows of life, not just the light.
Improving such relationships feels possible when you consider that all culturally established knowledge forms contain an implicit injunction. For Maths it’s ‘do the sums’! For History it’s ‘check the sources’! For Science it’s ‘run the tests’!
The main spiritual injunction we can agree on has its roots in the east and the west and it is as complex as it is simple: know what you are! That injunction carves out the space for the spiritual because it points to the existential perspectives, transcendent experiences and transformative practices that serve this purpose – not of your ‘self’ as your particular ‘place’ in the world, but as the human ‘ground’ that we all share.
We need a viable commons, grounded in the depths of shared human experience, and it has to be about more than just good feelings; it is also about growth and maturation, which means it must speak to the shadows of life, not just the light.
The spiritual points to the fundamental questions in life: What are we? Why are we here? How we should live? It makes sense to start with what is becoming clearer about the first part; because in that case at least, scientific perspectives chime well with first person experience.Alan Watts once asked: “Is that really what you think you are? An island of consciousness trapped inside a sack of skin?”. No, but if not that, then what?
In the report I give six main coordinates, but tonight we’ll stick to four:
First, and most importantly, we live on auto-pilot, virtually all of the time.
Cognitive and Social psychology tells us what those who slow down long enough to notice will confirm – that the extent of our automaticity is scary. And the point is not just that we are creatures of habit, but also habit creating creatures – we excel at putting ourselves to sleep by making life as automatic as possible.
This human trait is functional and adaptive at one level, because it frees up cognitive capacity, but it makes sense of why the call to ‘wake up’ is not merely figurative, and contextualises the current popularity of mindfulness meditation. People are realising that regularly being on auto-pilot is not an optimal way to spend our limited time here.
The perennial spiritual injunction to ‘wake up’ therefore has a strong scientific basis as hardened atheists like Sam Harris have noticed, but it also has has political relevance. Some suggest mass consumption depends upon us having suggestive auto-pilots reacting to appealing stimulus that targets our craving to enhance the self. In that context, spiritual practices that systemically help undermine automaticity – allowing us to respond rather than merely react – are one of the most radical things you can do.
the point is not just that we are creatures of habit, but also habit creating creatures – we excel at putting ourselves to sleep by making life as automatic as possible.
Second, we all live in two worlds and one of our worlds is under threat.
A proper understanding of the relationship between the right and left hemispheres of the Brain draws attention to two very different and often competing forms of perception and cognition, and makes the challenge of achieving ‘balance’ and perspective in life more palpable.
Here is how Scientist and Philosopher Iain McGilchrist puts it:“Because we thought of the brain as a machine, we were asking ‘what does it do?’ and getting the answer ‘they both do everything’. If instead we had thought of the brain as part of a person, rather than a machine, we might have asked a different question: ‘what’s he or she like?’ How, in other words – with what values, goals, interests, in what manner and in what way – did this part of a person do what he or she did? And we would have got quite another answer. For each hemisphere has a quite consistent, but radically different, ‘take’ on the world. This means that, at the core of our thinking about ourselves, the world and our relationship with it, there are two incompatible but necessary views that we need to try to combine. And things go badly wrong when we do not.”
The part of us that is concerned with context, meaning and wholeness is more tentative and less articulate than the part of us that is concerned with decontextualizing, measurement and precision, which means we have to fight that bit harder and better for the things that are difficult to articulate and measure. The soul is a particularly good case in point, as I’ll explain in a moment – we have to gently resist the mentality that would force us always to break down and define, to be precise, to measure, and protect perspectives that speak to the whole.
The point is more broadly relevant for those who believe society’s ills stem from our public language being excessively explicit and over-concerned with measurement. The case for the implicit and what Physicist David Bohm called ‘the implicate order’ arises from a deeper understanding of the primary division in our brain.
we have to gently resist the mentality that would force us always to break down and define, to be precise, to measure, and protect perspectives that speak to the whole.
Third, we live in our bodies.
That’s hardly a revelation! But cognitive science is beginning to show just how fundamental the body is to our making sense of the world, not least through bodily metaphors that define how we think.
While western approaches to spirituality tend to see the body as a distraction or barrier to spiritual life – think of the the joys of self-flagellation! - many eastern approaches see the body as the place to start the inquiry, but that may be changing. As Rowan Williams recently put it: “I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies.”
It’s not an accident that many in the west begin spiritual journeys with Yoga and that Yoga begins with asanas (bodily postures) moves on to pranayama (breathing) and only then deals with meditation or any discussion of divinity.
The simple fact is that the body is always present, while the mind is invariably elsewhere, and we reconnect them through the breath that we take for granted. Those who begin practicing simple mindfulness practices are often struck – sometimes for the first time in decades- by the extraordinary amount of activity going on in the body that they were barely aware of. The body is also what allows us to serve; some even think of it as our vehicle of liberation – helping to transform our consciousness for the better.
The simple fact is that the body is always present, while the mind is invariably elsewhere, and we reconnect them through the breath that we take for granted.
And of course experiences are bodily sensations. In an earlier talk in this series, Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton suggests that religions originated not from elaborate frameworks of beliefs intended to provide comfort and meaning, but rather from experiences that were actually seen, felt, and thereby, embodied.
And the body is inherently playful. We hear a lot about the work ethic, but musician and activist Pat Kane rightly reminds of the Play ethic, which often requires sensuality- a deep re-engagement with the body; the limbs, the eyes, the ears, the voice.To truly live in the body, then, is a formidable achievement and one that has become increasingly difficultas our minds are bombarded with information to process.
Fourth, we live with other people.
Again, hardly headline news…but research from anthropology, archaeology, sociology, neuroscience, behavioural economics and more highlights the extent to which we are constituted by and for social interaction. Our extended childhood years is one of the main reasons for this – being social is about survival, but it’s also about attachment and love.
This perspective indicates that spiritual development is likely to be at least partly a relational endeavour, and that while we may seek to transcend we may need to go through and beyond our relationships, not merely around them.
While we shouldn’t ask for too much from a single study, research by Nancy Ammerman in the US indicated that those who self-define as ‘spiritual but not religious’ are often neither spiritual nor religious in practice because they approach the spiritual outside of an enduring social context.
The challenge therefore is how to socialise spirituality without the binding factors of creed and culture that typically hold religions together. This might mean new institutional forms, or it might mean a reengagement with existing religions that recognises ‘belief’ is not a precondition of entry but more like an optional emergent property of social participation.
Love, Death, Self and Soul.
Arising out of that understanding of the human ‘ground’, there is a cultural challenge to restructure our understanding of how the spiritual manifests, and why it matters. The task is to prevent our shared understanding of the spiritual collapsing into those more familiar and comfortable ideas that hover around it; the theological, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, emotional, scientific, mystical, psychological, and sociological even though it contains elements of all of them.
My suggestion is to think of spirituality in terms of four main aspects of human existence that are consistently distorted or misrepresented, but can and should be a larger part of the public conversation.
First, Love has become almost synonymous with attraction and desire and romance, but these points of emphasis obscure a much deeper phenomenon. Many involved with the research said we can’t give depth to the spiritual without a richer understanding of love, but how exactly can we do that.
Professor Simon May’s perspective is useful in this regard:Love is about the promise of what he calls ‘ontological rootedness’ – a chance to belong, and make ourselves at home and make ourselves real through others and we seek that promise in other people and other things, including God, ‘the objective transcendent’ or ‘the G-bomb’ – both terms used by Elizabeth Oldfield.
We can catch a glimpse of this primal need when we find ourselves welling up with emotion about things we deeply identity with. The centrality of love is closely connected to our extended period of infancy when we need to rely on others for so long, and perhaps we feel that deep interdependence more than we are allowed to express in an individualistic culture. But there are aspects of love that are transcendent too and much human suffering is created by asking for the kinds of unconditional love that people alone cannot provide. Where are our discussions of how love and will come together – a key theme in the growing Psychosynthesis movement? Where do we hear about the ferocity of maternal love? And why do we so rarely think of friendship in terms of love? (Surely the enduring and tenacious love Sam had for Frodo makes him the true hero of Lord of the Rings.)
If Love is about our physiological and psychological need to ground ourselves in the world, loving God as ‘the objective transcendent’ makes a lot of sense, but – and this is controversial- the idea that such a God loves us no longer makes sense in a reciprocal way.
Second, Death, in the context of spiritual commitment to wake up,becomes the central feature of our ground, and less something to be avoided and more something to be confronted and accepted to help us live more fully. Evidence from post-traumatic growth and near death experience survivors suggest confrontations with death are transformative, which is paradoxical given that we already know we should die – the challenge is for this knowledge to become visceral in a way that helps us reorient our lives towards our ‘ground’ (that we were born and will die) and away from our ‘place’ (our personalities, possessions, status).
Evidence from post-traumatic growth and near death experience survivors suggest confrontations with death are transformative, which is paradoxical given that we already know we should die
Third, Self. There’s a famous statement by British Taoist philosopher Wei Wu Wei that goes: “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.”
You can argue against that, but from a spiritual perspective if our selves are not non-existent they are at least somewhat problematic. We have a built a culture and an economy that requires us to curate and choreograph a personality for the world, but as Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein has indicated, the spiritual begins where the personality ends.
If you dare to observe your thoughts it is quite shocking to see that ordinary consciousness is saturated with an ongoing cacophony of self-concern and self-justification that undermines the quality of our lives and our capacity to be present for others.
Part of spiritual progress is therefore about self-integration, about gaining a sense of autonomy and control over the fragmented parts of ourselves, but much of spiritual life is also about self-transcendence in experience and through practice. Both are important, and John Welwood speaks of the danger of ‘spiritual bypassing’ in which we try to shore up a shaky sense of self with spiritual practices alone.
So self is the territory where spiritual progress depends on strengthening and integrating on the one hand, but seeking to transcend on the other. As psychologist Jack Engler puts it: ‘we need to be somebody before we can be nobody’.
There’s a famous statement by British Taoist philosopher Wei Wu Wei that goes: “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.”
Fourth, Soul. If the self is unreal, and songwriter Tracy Chapman is to be believed, “all that you have is your soul”. I think we should distinguish between self and soul to put clear water between something we take for granted that is actually problematic or even unreal, and something we tend to neglect but should become a much more salient part of our lives.
Iain McGilchrist puts it like this: “Articulating what the soul might be in an age of materialism, without relying on any particular religious tradition, is a hard task.” But he calls the soul a process rather than a thing; more a disposition, a “how”, than a substance, a “what”. For Emerson, the soul was the ideal of complete human activity; it’s about the congruence of things that create a whole.
We therefore need the soul to give the fullest expression to human experience as something that is bound up in longing and unknowing. Theologian Keith Ward puts it like this: “The whole point of talking of the soul is to remind ourselves constantly that we transcend all the conditions of our material existence; that we are always more than the sum of our chemicals, our electrons, our social roles or our genes…We transcend them precisely in being indefinable, always more than can be seen or described, subjects of experience and action, unique and irreplaceable.”
‘Soul’ is not anti-scientific, it’s anti scientistic. From a largely materialist perspective Nicholas Humphrey says that humans actually live in ‘the soul niche’ and he means niche in the conventional ecological sense of the term – the environment to which we are adapted. “Trout live in rivers, gorillas in forests, bedbugs in beds. Humans live in soul land.”
‘Soul’ is not anti-scientific, it’s anti scientistic.
Humphrey adds that ‘Soul land’ is a territory of the spirit and also that this spiritual territory is not only where humans live, but also where they give of their best. Reclaiming the soul is also therefore partly about placing creative expression at the centre of people’s lives.
If you want a heuristic to remember these four major aspects of spirituality, you can think of love, death, self and soul as belonging, being, becoming and beyondness, respectively.
All four shifts in perspective serve as a critique of economic and philosophical materialism and shed light on the limitations of instrumentality and extrinsic motivation in the public realm.
The take home message then, is this.
Reclaiming the spiritual for the public realm is about having the courage to speak of what truly matters.
We need to speak of what we truly love and why.
We need to recognise, alone and together, that life is fragile and contingent and there is time to savour but not really to waste.
We need to see the self, not as an unproblematic given, but as a lifelong task of integration and transcendence.
And we need, in the interests of cultural balance and perspective, to regain the language of the soul- to see things in their broadest possible context.
I will end with a quotation from esteemed writer Marilyn Robinson who makes the point with a brutal simplicity:
“I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do…I miss civilization, and I want it back.”
Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and is currently finishing the report which gives fuller expression to the ideas in this speech. He tweets @jonathan_rowson