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:
Earlier this year I played a small part in helping Chess in Schools and communities raise almost £700,000 from the Educational Endowment foundation for a randomised control trial on the impact of chess on attainment in Maths and English (and a few other measures) in about 50 primary schools. The scheme is being evaluated by the Institute of Education in London and represents a big breakthrough for chess, and potentially for educational research too.
Those who played chess when they were younger tend to have little doubt about its educational value, but as with almost any educational initiative, finding hard evidence for that is difficult. There is a huge range of anecdotal, case study and qualitative evidence, but this study over 4 years will hopefully prove what we have long suspected.
At the current count, Chess in Schools and Communities now covers over 283 schools over 46 boroughs, mostly in deprived areas. They are hosting a conference this weekend at Kensington Olympia’s exhibition centre called Successes and Challenges: Improving School Chess Practice, Research and Strategy. There are still places available for those who want to attend!
I had very much hoped to play a part in the conference, but now urgently have to finish our climate change report and conserve some ‘wild card’ energy to compete with some of the best players in the world later next week.
The challenge with any educational intervention is not to show that it helps, or how much, but to say what makes you think it helps more than other interventions. Chess has potential to make this case, due to its rich history and cultural resonance, affordability and helpful association with intelligence.
The most exacting challenge with any educational intervention is not to show that it helps, or how much, but to say what makes you think it helps more than other interventions. Chess has potential to make this case, due to its rich history and cultural resonance, affordability and helpful association with intelligence. Many who otherwise struggle at school find they are good at chess, and realise that thinking and reasoning has a positive place in their lives.
My own ‘take’ on the value of chess in a nutshell, particularly in areas of educational disadvantage, is that it builds what Ron Ritchart calls ‘Intellectual Character‘ by providing a safe space with rules and feedback where you learn that you will inevitably make mistakes, but can still win. It also creates particularly valuable forms of what sociologists call ‘social capital’, in terms of community pooling of resources and time and inter-generational learning…but alas instead of developing that, I’m afraid I currently only have time to share a lightly edited version of a newspaper column I wrote on the subject two years ago! I hope some of you can make it to the conference.
Herald Chess Column for October 1st 2011:
Primary school feels like a long time ago, but it was instrumental to my chess development, as it is for most players who go on to become Grandmasters. Had it not been for supportive teachers and a team of players I liked most of the time, including my brother, there is no way I would have fallen in love with the game in the way I did.
I went to Skene Square primary school in Aberdeen where chess was always played in the library with the red carpet, on the corner of the second floor. We only tend to remember things that make an emotional imprint on our souls, and that room must have, because I remember little else of the inside of the school.
I went to Skene Square primary school in Aberdeen where chess was always played in the library with the red carpet, on the corner of the second floor. We only tend to remember things that make an emotional imprint on our souls, and that room must have, because I remember little else of the inside of the school.
Chess in primary school meant challenge, delicious tension like no other, structured competition where physical strength didn’t matter, and a constant experience of learning and growing. It was also a time of learning away from home, going to nearby schools to represent my own, and sometimes crying when the result didn’t go my way.
I think of this now because the charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, is campaigning hard to get chess into primary schools, at least in England and Wales, but no doubt North of the border in time. The charity was set up by the chess world’s most revered and respected Scouser, Malcolm Pein, and already teaches chess to primary school children in seventy schools.
The breakthrough was an appearance on BBC breakfast television, which led to Yasmin Qureshi, the MP for Bolton South East, tabling an Early Day Motion supporting the playing of chess in primary schools, which was co-signed by Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP for Leeds West:
“This House recognises the positive social and intellectual benefits for all children across the social spectrum of learning chess at a young age and the relatively low costs of teaching it in schools; notes that while chess currently receives no financial support from the Government, many European countries including Sweden and France financially support chess in schools; further notes that the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth would welcome UK support for the Chess in Schools project being developed by the ECU and the Kasparov Chess Foundation; welcomes the work of the UK-based charity Chess in Schools and Communities which teaches chess to primary school children from less affluent backgrounds; and calls on the Government to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to learn chess at primary school within existing resources.”
References to ‘green crap’ miss the point. The key political fault line on climate change is not green versus non green, but how you order the priorities of the energy ‘trilemma’. The case for climate change action needs to be made at this level to gain political traction.
Michael Fallon is the minister whose thinking most closely mirrors Number 10′s stance on energy policy so if you want to know what number 10 thinks beyond disputed references to ‘green crap’, his words should be carefully observed.
The Energy Minister recently told The Spectator Conference on energy that the most important issues were ‘security of supply, affordability, and playing our part in combating climate change. And that for me is the order.’
This seemingly innocuous statement is hugely significant because it publicly acknowledges the key trade-offs at the heart of energy policy, and candidly takes a clear position on it. Fallon, like Cameron and Osborne are not denying the need for a rapid reduction in carbon emissions, they are saying you can’t get those reductions without compromising two other important priorities.
the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty
In this case, the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty. Such ‘trilemmas’ are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, but they are not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow.
There is wide political agreement that we have to try to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change, which means significantly reducing and gradually eliminating fossil fuels from our energy supply, and improving energy efficiency at scale.
However, we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply, which is harder with renewable forms of energy that are generally less reliable than the baseload power offered by fossil fuels (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’) and complex if you are simultaneously interfering with the energy market to lower prices. This was the argument (strongly contested) recently used by British parliamentarians to justify extending the life of the country’s dirtiest power stations. - that it was necessary to ‘keep the lights on’.
And we also need to keep fuel prices affordable, especially for those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because they can’t pay for their heating. Keeping costs low is not easy with a transition to renewables, which is costly in itself, and because renewable energy is currently more expensive. On current form, energy companies will inevitably pass on such costs to consumers.
It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of the three imperatives – energy security, fuel poverty and climate change – but we can question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and challenge some of the assumptions underpinning them. Indeed, how you do so represents the new political fault line on the energy debate.
As I argue in a forthcoming RSA report on climate change, I believe the moral priority of climate change takes precedence, and would challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. If pressed, I would probably say the order has to be climate change, energy security and fuel poverty, but making this case well requires keeping competing perspectives on ‘morality’ firmly in mind.
If your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country, you have to think about that moment every day when people return from work, when there is a huge spike in demand caused by heating and lights going on, people having hot showers, watching TV and preparing meals. Can you stomach the idea of power failure for millions in that context?
And if, like millions, you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy as an electoral issue, would you not be more inclined to question the importance of our climate commitments, regardless of scientific opinion?
The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see.
The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. Those like Fallon apparently accept that we should ‘do our bit’, but argue that we cannot unilaterally decide what ‘our bit’ should be – for that we look at the actions of comparable countries. This position is hardly heroic or inspiring, and makes my heart sink, but let’s accept that it is at least understandable.
Which doesn’t prevent us from saying it is wrong on a number of levels.
Those attacking the priority of energy security could ask why we can’t significantly reduce our energy demand through lifestyle changes. Or they might ask whether it’s ok if the power goes off every so often. Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in affluent parts of India do? If that sounds like political suicide, more powerful is to challenge the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability, as Marc Jacobsen and others are doing with increasing conviction, or(more controversially) that we need more nuclear power.
Those attacking the priority of fuel poverty might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, as David Cameron recently did, which chimes with social practice theory arguments about ‘energy need’ being socially constructed, but feels much too facile. The key challenge, surely, is to the billions of pounds offered in fossil fuel subsidies, without which renewable energy would not struggle to be seen as affordable. An even more fundamental question is whether profiting out of energy provision – now an essential human need – makes sense at all? Could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy, as 69% of the population seem to want?
You will notice, in each case, that few of the arguments or suggestions sound straightforward or completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically difficult if not implausible. That’s why we have a genuine energy trilemma. Something has to give.
Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and the author of a forthcoming report on Climate Change ‘stealth denial’ in the British population. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathan_rowson
Tonight I am chairing an event with my friend and former PhD supervisor Professor Guy Claxton, for the second of our series of public events on Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. The event is booked out with a large waiting list, but you can watch or listen to the event live, download after the event, or follow (and give) comments at the hashtag #RSASpirituality.
For now, I offer the following extracts as an appetiser. I am sure Guy’s thinking has evolved since his inaugural address at Bristol University in 2002 around the time we first met, but I’m equally sure the quality of thinking and expression will be just as good, if not better. Guy’s main argument tonight will be similar in spirit, enriched by some of his recent thinking on embodied cognition. The following extract follows from the claim that spiritual experiences tend to bring four shifts in the quality of our experience: aliveness, belonging, mystery and peace of mind, which Guy examines as follows:
“Underlying all these four shifts in the quality of experience seems to be an expansion in the sense of identity, so that instead of feeling like an anxious bubble, in constant danger of being jostled or pricked, one feels more union or wholeness, both within and without, and this brings with it more kinship and more trust. It is no coincidence that the descriptions are couched is such glowing language, for those who report them overwhelmingly appraise them as positive and valuable. While from the outside it is possible – as Freud and others have done – to interpret accounts of the Common Experience sceptically or pathologically, from the inside, there is little doubt that something precious, even momentous, has occurred.
I think that experiences like that are small gifts, little tastes of spirituality. And those tastes are attractive, and often leave, when they fade, as they mostly do, a thirst for more of what they have betokened. So here is my definition of spirituality. First, it involves the feeling of being drawn towards such qualities and experiences, and of wanting to increase their likelihood, frequency or stability. The urge is not to seek them piecemeal, however, but to develop the quality of being which underpins them. Second, spirituality may involve a strengthening desire to seek the company of people who seem to possess these qualities more strongly: to find what Buddhists call a sangha. And third, and less comfortably, the spiritual impulse may involve a feeling of heightened dissatisfaction with the absences or the opposites of such qualities. A taste of intensified aliveness may make normal energy levels and perceptions feel grey and dull. That blast of ‘belonging’ can make that orphaned feeling all the more intolerable. A surge of ‘mystery’ may make adventure seem more attractive than conventional security. And even a moment of deeply felt inner peace can painfully accentuate a more familiar feeling of self-consciousness or confusion.”
The Guardian’s sustainable business hub just published the first of a series of posts that I hope to be contributing on behavioural insight for sustainable living:
“What do free bananas, pension auto-enrolments, and the deepest bin in the world have in common? They are all examples of behavioural insight. Free bananas have been used by charities to elicit donations, working with our notorious weakness for anything free, while subtly priming our sense of reciprocity. The introduction of pension auto-enrolment simply shifted a default setting from ‘off’ to ‘on’, harnessing the awesome power of inertia and ensuring provision for thousands. And the deepest bin in the world turns out to be a normal bin with in-built sound effects, making throwing rubbish away fun and helping to keep parks tidy.
Such examples are now legion, and the behavioural ideas that underpin them are rightly perceived to be cool. The fact that behavioural insight is a modern form of intellectual entertainment is no bad thing, but it should give us pause, because cool is not the same as profitable or ethical or sustainable, and it doesn’t address the core tension between commercial ambitions and ecological constraints.”
For the rest of the article, please go here.
The BBC’s David Dimbleby, the Presented of Question Time and the anchor for every election since 1979, has chosen to have a scorpion tattoo on his shoulder.
(Photograph by BBC via Guardian)
I am happy for him!
You are only old once – David Dimbleby
He Chose a scorpion because of his star sign(which is not to say that he ‘believes‘ in astrology), and because he liked the idea of it “sitting on my shoulder ready to attack my enemies”. He also remarked: “You are only old once. I have always wanted a tattoo. I thought I might as well have it done now. It’s a dream come true for me.”
At this point I am proud to say, on behalf of my late former colleague, Dr Emma Lindley, that her research indicates that Dimbleby may not be unusual in this respect. It was principally Emma’s work, supported by The Hanover Trust that lead to the report: What older people want: sex, skydiving and tatoos.
The overarching message of the report was that there is an enormous sense of playfulness and experimentation among older people. Dimbley, and his new scorpion, have many like-minded allies.
I have never wanted a tattoo, but I admire the spirit of doing what you really want to do before it’s too late. What really matters is the scorpion tatoo you have on the inside…
Did you hear about the cyborg ‘hottie’?
Turns out he is the best chess player in the world.
(Image by Fred Jonny via CNN Money)
This morning (Sunday) I was invited on to the BBC World Service (from c37mins) to talk about the World Chess Championship match (currently underway in Chennai, India, and tied at 1-1 after two fairly cagey draws) and the second question was about the challenger being ‘a hottie’ (not my term!).
You may have seen Norway’s Magnus Carlsen advertising for G-Star Raw on London busses, or heard about him in the national news. As well as being world number one chess player, he has that combination of height, youth, muscle definition and masculine moodiness that the cameras seem to love (and for which he was voted one of the sexiest men of 2013 by Cosmopolitan magazine…). **
And he’s not just any old ‘hottie’. At 22, he is by far the highest rated chess player in the world, but has minimal match experience and is currently competing for the World Championship title against Viswanathan Anand (‘Vishy’) who excels in match play, and has survived numerous challenges to his throne.
In most chess training camps for top players you would expect to find lots of powerful laptops but few if any chessboards.
Thankfully, I was also asked about the shifting role of computers in chess, and took the chance to link with my broader Social Brain perspective and suggest that most top Grandmasters are now like cyborgs.
The point is not so much that computer supremacy has stopped people playing or enjoying chess, but that they have significantly changed our approach to the game. For instance, chess analysis engines (‘computers’) are now so easy to use and so much stronger than human players in most positions that cheating has become a big challenge (e.g. any half-decent player can figure our the best move in their game with the help of a smartphone in a toilet cubicle, or some other private place).
Moreover, chess preparation now takes place at the human-machine interface. I have experience of World Championship opening preparation, and can assure you that human Grandmasters are very much used to bring out the best in the computers, rather than the other way round. Indeed, in most chess training camps for top players you would expect to find lots of powerful laptops but few if any chessboards.
In this sense, top Grandmasters like Magnus are like Cybernetic organisms in that their chess ability if a fusion of human and computer qualities. Some might say Magnus is a relatively analogue creature, famous for ‘just playing’, but he would never have become so good so quickly without computers collating, organising and analysing information that took much longer for previous generations to assimilate, and through accessing worthy opponents to practice with on the internet, that would otherwise be a flight or two away.
Chess Grandmasters remain human, but we are beginning to look at positions with ‘computer eyes’, and see our own limitations more clearly. For instance, while we are playing we often sense that the best move – the one the computers would choose- is different from the one we choose to play(usually because it is so counter-intuitive) and the very fact we acknowledge this schism between objective best and human best indicates the computers are ‘getting in to our heads’.
World Champion Viswanathan Anand, via chessbase.com
The extended mind
This point is by no means limited to chess. Much of our memory is now in our smartphones or inboxes; much of our creativity is now a function of cleverly using search engines and the copy and paste function, and so on. Does it matter as much as it used to that we learn to spell accurately or do arithmetic accurately? Purists would say so- we need such knowledge to build other forms of knowledge in our heads, but others would say why bother so much, when handheld computers can do it for you?
Chess Grandmasters remain human, but we are beginning to look at positions with ‘computer eyes’.
This point about the extended mind is not just about technological developments and has a deep ontological basis. Where does the mind stop and the world begin? Is your mind in your head? What about your glasses, your pens, your tools of various kinds- are they not also in some sense part of your mind? If somebody steals your smart phone, is part of your mind not also taken away?
Highly respected philosophers, David Chalmers and Andy Clark have written about The Extended Mind in this way, and it’s an important perspective for our general reappraisal of human nature. Although the analogy is clearly an exaggeration for effect, some have even compared the impact of one’s hard drive crashing to having a mild stroke, in the sense that both significantly debilitate our cognitive functions.
some have even compared the impact of one’s hard drive crashing to having a mild stroke
There is a huge debate about what exactly constitutes a bona fide cyborg with some suggesting there has to be constant two-way feedback between organism and machines. However, I am at ease with the more modest claim that since we all function with minds that are extended through the tools we use, and since those tools increasingly shape how we think and act, we are all gradually becoming more cyborg-like.
Alas, the Magnus Carlsen phenomenon indicates that although we may all be cyborgs, we can’t all be hotties as well.
The World Chess Championship match takes place from Nov 9th-Nov 28th in Chennai, India. Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, a chess Grandmaster and former British Chess Champion (2004-6). You can follow him @Jonathan_Rowson
(**I am proud to say that Magnus has read at least one of my books and I played him at the Scotland-Norway match at the Dresden Olympiad back in 2008. He was only 17 then, but already part of the world’s elite. I played well, but too slowly, and as time pressure took hold I could sense him turning into a predator, ready to pounce, which he did in great style. There’s a short Youtube video of us analysing our game together.)
How moral are you feeling at the moment? The answer, curiously, may depend upon when you are reading these words.
Any discussion of ‘morality’ is contentious, but we tend to speak of it as a quality that you have in fixed amounts, even though the way we express our moral sense is often through the quality of self-restraint that is generally context specific, and more tangibly, something that depletes gradually throughout the day.
“The authors checked out this theory of a ‘morning morality’ effect by giving participants in four studies opportunities to cheat while carrying out simple computer-based tasks. Sometimes people were tested in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. Each time, during the tasks, they were surreptitiously given chances to cut corners or tell little fibs. Across the studies, the researchers found that people were less likely to cheat and lie in the morning than the afternoon.People who cheated more in the afternoon also showed lower moral awareness, suggesting their moral character was bleeding away as the day proceeded.”
In so far as this effect is true (‘morality’ cannot be scientifically operationalised; and even if this is done very sensitively/carefully, one experiment is not enough…) its greatest value is probably *not* that we should take our biggest and most important ethical decisions when we feel at our brightest and freshest (because we knew that already).
The deeper value of the study is to get away from the idea that morality is a binary quality that we either have or don’t have; but rather think, as Zimbardo and many other have been arguing for a long time, that morality is primarily situational- it’s less about who we are and more about where we are, who we are with, and what we are doing.
I have been waiting for ‘life to settle down a bit’ before reflecting on last week’s public event Beyond Belief: Taking Spirituality Seriously, but that looks like it’s not going to happen, so here goes:
The main thing to say is that I felt a sense of relief. I’m 36 and it’s about time I felt at ease in my own skin, so it was liberating to talk about something in public that is an important part of my life and work- it wasn’t quite like coming out of the closet, but the event as a whole did have that slight confessional feeling to it.
And it was an encouraging start. The event booked out very quickly, the Great Room was packed with over 160 people, there was a chatty group (I’m told) in the spillover room downstairs, an online audience, many stayed behind afterwards, there was some tweeting (though we could have done a better job of stoking the fires) and the RSAreplay video has been viewed almost 3,000 times in just over a week.
There were also thoughtful public responses from co-panelist Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, and Philosopher Jules Evans, who is working as a consultant on the project, and many more positive (and a few constructively critical) emails and comments came to me privately.
The general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.
Qualitatively speaking, it is harder to judge, but the general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.
In this respect I liked Jules’s remark that: “I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breathe easier.”
I know that some in the audience may have hoped for a less qualified discussion and a more transformative experience, but given the diversity of perspectives,the nature of the medium, and the organisational context, I only have a certain amount of sympathy with that view! The four of us on stage were not there as sages or gurus; the event was about publicly airing our collective concern with such matters, rather than advocating a particular spiritual practice or metaphysical worldview.
I plan to share the text of my speech from the event here in due course, but first wanted to pitch an amended version of it to a few external sources, to spread the word, as it were, as far as possible.
I am not fond of speeches that are read out, but on this occasion it felt appropriate to mark the moment with choice words, rather than roll the dice with improvised remarks. The crux of my pitch was that we have lost sight of the essential link between personal and social transformation, and that we need spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences to bring that link back to our attention. (For what it’s worth, this morning I noticed that no less than Russell Brand is making a similar case in his guest editorship of New Statesman, but I would want to check the details before claiming him as an ally!)
In my opening remarks, I introduced a core distinction to encapsulate a common theme among different forms of spirituality (e.g. religious spirituality, ‘spiritual but not religious’, secular spirituality) namely the distinction between our ground (the basic facts of our existence) and our place (our social standing) and suggested that many of our existing social and ecological problems stem from getting distracted by a fixation with our place, and losing sight of our ground.
This pervasive neglect and imbalance manifests principally through the constant pressure to work in order to consume, but is also evident in our widespread de-facto denial of climate change, and an increase in mental health problems.
This is not an easy subject to talk about. I find myself torn between repeating the main messages in ‘The Brains Behind Spirituality’ essay in this summer’s journal that opened the discussion, and trying to forge new ground, as I began to here, and in the speech. Some are willing to follow these lines of thought, but others struggle to forge ahead without a clearer sense of what kind of work we are asking the contested word ‘spiritual’ to do for us. Some people seem to want a canonical definition, but the very nature of the term is much more like a placeholder concept to mark out key questions that otherwise lack a conceptual reference point.
For those who are not merely ambivalent about the term, but actively hostile towards it, I should say that I have written before about why spirituality is not a distinctly capitalist phenomenon, about buying new age products and services, and has a much deeper relevance as a critique of certain aspects of capitalist society.
It was good to hear Madeleine Bunting draw attention to the fact that such a discussion was entirely consistent with the RSA’s history, and also acknowledge that, sadly, hosting such a discussion today was ‘brave’. I also agree with her that while semantic discussions rarely feel productive, sometimes the words we choose to discuss such matters are the single most important thing. Part of the bravery is to stick with the discussion about the words, while being clear about the limitations of what such a discussion can reveal.
Elizabeth Oldfield’s reference to ‘the human propensity to f*** things up’, or ‘HPtFtU’ is useful. It stems from the outstandingly written book: Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and is presented as an accessible way to understand the idea of original sin. In some respects HPtFtU is very much what my introductory talk was about, and there might be interesting connections between the shared psychological underpinnings of the Christian notion of ‘sin’ and the Secular Buddhist notion of ‘ground’ to be explored for those who are so inclined.
I was grateful to Robert Rowland Smith for beginning his remarks by saying: “I’m wondering why Madeleine is so freaked out by the word ‘spirituality…’” because is spared me from doing so, and more broadly it was helpful to have an historical and dialectical perspective on how we came to this moment of cultural confusion about how to discuss fundamental human questions in public.
In Defence of Scented Candles….
It was also funny to see ‘scented candles in the bath’ given such a hard time as a metaphor for spirituality as self-indulgent pampering rather than self-transforming practice. I am very keen to move discussions of spirituality away from such references, but for the record, I am quite partial to a nice scented candle!
RSA events are now a global brand, and as such they have certain constraints. One of these constraints is that our public events have a limited range of formats and almost never extend beyond 75 minutes. Last Wednesday we ended with unanswered questions about a version of ‘the objective transcendent’ that wasn’t God, and human aspiration not being big enough to reconceive the spiritual in a challenging way. I felt like a real curmudgeon to end the discussion when I did.
There is certainly more to say, so please keep in mind that the conversation is just beginning!
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I will update this post soon with some thoughts and reactions, but for those who missed it, I wanted to share the unedited replay of last night’s packed event about rethinking spirituality, with myself, Madeleine Bunting, Elizabeth Oldfield, Robert Rowland Smith and very informed audience, which can be found here.
The best line of the night, for me, came from our joint Head of Events, Mairi Ryan, who found herself feeling too engaged and absorbed to draw her attention away and live tweet while the discussion was underway.
As she put it just after it was all over: “It was too tweetable to tweet.”