*Update: see comment below for Tom Crompton’s reference to a study where sustained reflection on death led to a shift to intrinsic values, while people only briefly reflecting on death responded by chopping down lots of trees!*
“I face up to death but then I flip back into denial. Surely that’s what it’s like? I lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, absolutely terrified by the apprehension of my own dissolution…And then I go to sleep and wake up the morning and make toast.” - Will Self (c51.28)
Who would have thought death would be such a draw? The Twitter hashtag for last night’s public event: ‘Let’s Talk about Death’ was #rsadeath but the event was heavily oversubscribed, and in light of the struggle people had getting a seat in The Great Room, #rschairgate was suggested as an alternative. As the chair, there were some tense moments for me, as one might expect, and not least when Will Self appeared to be uncomfortably close to recommending suicide; although many said afterwards that if you’re serious about opening up this kind of discussion, nothing can really be off limits.
As indicated in my pre-event post: ‘We’re all going to die’, we put this event on because our denial of death is a key driver of how we live our lives and plan our societies; it is also a key component of whatever we think spirituality is, or should be. The discussion feels difficult at first blush, but once you open yourself to its ubiquity and significance, you almost wonder why people talk about anything else.
I thought the panel were excellent individually and complemented each other well. I offer a few select quotes and thoughts for now, with some analysis to follow when we have the manuscript.
The Philosopher and writer Stephen Cave gave a distilled overview of how human cultures have tried to evade death over time with informed contributions arising from his recent book on the perennial quest for immortality. I particularly liked his not altogether facetious suggestion near the end, imagining a family around the breakfast table posing themselves a familiar question with an important twist: “Given that we’re all going to die, what shall we do today?”
I was also struck by the way Stephen set the scene before unpacking details of research in social psychology(c05.00): “Death is a Taboo, maybe our last taboo…Death shifts you into a different gear…If you are religious you’ll now be feeling more religious. If you are patriotic you’ll now be feeling more patriotic. Whatever the core of your worldview is, because we’ve mentioned the death word, you’ll now be holding on to it more tightly and will more aggressively defend it.”
Joanna Cooke offered a compelling perspective based on her experience of spiritual practices as a Therevada Buddhist nun in Northern Thailand; further enriched by her athropological acumen. (c15.40) “In my own sitting I was aware of my own skeletal structure, and the muscles and sinews and so on that make up the body…But not just the body, my body; as in, me….So there is no cheating death here. The meditator learns to stare down the vertiginous fact of her own mortality, unflinchingly and intentionally….”
Joanna went on to quote Steve Jobs in celebrated Stanford commencement address in 2005: “Remembering you are going to die is the best way of avoiding the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Spacetime and ‘Lifedeath’
Will Self was typically unnerving, subversive and dark, but also brilliant, funny, substantively helpful, and periodically generous in spirit. I was particularly struck by his life/death continuim idea. Just as physicists now speak of ‘spacetime’ rather than seperate dimensions of space and time, so life and death are not really seperate things.Death is such an integral part of life that we should think of them as part of the same ontological or phenomenological fabric.
Will also made some challenging comments about the State’s need for military deaths as a kind of sacrificial rite to legitimase its ongoing monopoly of sanctioned violence Relatedly: (c1.09.30) “Surely there is nothing more obscene than the sight of a priest in military uniform. It really shows the whole charade up for what it is.” I was also struck by his sympathy for certain aspects of Christianity e.g. (c37.10)”When I say, as an agnostic, that religion does death well, what I mean is, that the part of me that is a genuine agnostic is swayed, under the influence of a Christian funeral. I couldn’t believe I think they do it well if I was sitting there thinking this is obviously…Sky-God nonsense, clearly part of me is responding.”
And later, in response to a question by Mark Vernon, I felt part of his answer was particularly elegant line (c49 mins): “What is interesting about Christianity is that it views salvation as simultaneously a dissolution and an actualisation of the ego.”
Beyond all the great contributions, my main reflection concerns the connection between the public salience of death and research in the social psychology of values championed by Common Cause. I will unpack this point in another post – because it’s a potentially huge issue, but in essence, if reflecting on our own deaths tends to promote intrinsic values(love, nature, craft) and weaken extrinsic values(fame, money, status), and concealing death has the opposite effect, our cultural representations of death clearly have much greater political and economic implications than we tend to realise.
On Monday June 23rd at 6pm I’ll be chairing ‘Let’s Talk about Death’ featuring Writer Will Self, Philosopher Stephen Cave and Anthropologist Joanna Cook. This event is the fourth in our series of six on reconceiving spirituality, which is part of a larger Social Brain Centre project on Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. We have completed public events on Spirituality, The Body, The Soul and, now, Death (though it’s not yet the end!..). We have also been busy with research behind the scenes, and our final report on the project is scheduled for publication in September. For now, some thoughts on death ahead of Monday…
“What is most personal is most universal.” – Carl Rogers
I’m just back from the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Mindfulness in the Houses of Parliament. This totemic ‘we have arrived’ moment is a small but significant step forward for the diverse and growing movement of people who broadly adhere to a radically sane idea, namely that some experiential awareness of the functioning of our own minds, and greater skill in directing our attention, might be important.
Meditation is simply about being yourself, and knowing something about who that is. - Jon Kabat-Zinn.
(The following post is a selection of ideas and links to add some texture and critical apparatus to help people better engage with the growing mindfulness phenomenon. It is by no means an exhaustive account, and was written mostly to make sense of how mindfulness connects with RSA’s work, past and present, which I refer to at the end. While one can and should distinguish between mindfulness meditation and meditation in general, Kabat Zinn’s statement captures why RSA’s Social Brain centre is interested – mindfulness is a form of practice that helps to cultivate self-knowledge.) Read more
You may have noticed the media have recently been interested in the question of whether Britain is a Christian country. The story went something like this:
Prime minister David Cameron let it be known that his famously unreliable celestial radio reception has improved and not only does he ‘do God’ but suggests that more of us should do the same: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” Read more
Setting: in a little known boutique hidden inside Café de Paris in Piccadilly Circus, singles shuffle furtively as they prop up the bar. Long since unleashed from ideological matrimony, but increasingly weary of social media and existentially adrift, they have come for a subterranean adventure, hoping to meet ideas they can truly believe in, seeking friendship, and perhaps something more.
These ideas, in turn, are out on the prowl, miraculously assuming human form for the duration of the evening; they are secretly hoping they will be understood and accepted for ‘who they really are’, though none of them are quite sure what that means. Read more
Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.
I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas. Read more
Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.
In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely. Read more
The next time somebody tells you that we need to move beyond ‘top down’ solutions and do things ‘bottom up’, ask them which way is North on their compass – where are they exactly, and where are they trying to go? Read more
We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides (Eugene Gendlin). Perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’. – Iain McGilchrist
Monday night’s event in the RSA Great Room, “What Happened to the Soul?” by Iain McGilchrist, can be viewed above in all its unedited grit and glory.
This was the third event of six in the spirituality series, following from events one and two. Some more considered analysis on this third event will follow when we can quote from the full transcript currently being prepared, but for now, here goes:
It is always hard to judge the success of public events, especially when you’re part of them, but there have been many positive responses (‘tremendous’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’) from people whose judgment I respect, and the people watching had plenty to say on Twitter, though I suppose that might just represent moral support or twitchy fingers.
My impression is that the questions and answer session (from c35 mins in) was particularly spirited, and may be worth cutting to directly to get animated and engaged by the ideas, before returning to the more intricate substance of the talk, which of course contained lots of wonderful material to think about too.
I think the biggest issue, and one I hope to come back to, concerns the scope to think about some mental health problems (perhaps mild to moderate forms of depression in particular) as a form of ‘soul sickness’. This reframing is informed by Iain’s account of the role of suffering in ‘growing a soul’(though he was emphatic that nobody should suffer acute mental ill health for a moment longer than necessary) and what might follow for the appropriate use of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.
Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.
This is a big and complex issue, and a large part of the potential practical value of reconceiving spirituality, as indicated by our three research workshops(the content of which will be shared in our final project report, due in October.). Iain is clearly by no means the only person working in the broad mental health domain to think something resembling ‘spirituality’ may be important it not essential for mental health.
As a Psychiatrist, Iain would not be so facile as to say such a reframing is always appropriate or that it always helps significantly. However, if thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.
A fuller account of that argument will follow, but for now, if you find time to watch the video, look out for:
- “Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul…” (A perennial quotation of uncertain provenance!)
- The need for ‘the soul’ as a concept – why the substitutes don’t cut it as a way of capturing certain qualities of experience.
- The joke about the poor man repeatedly praying to win the lottery, whom God finally speaks to by saying: “Meet me half way, buy a ticket.”
- Iain’s intensely metaphorical (almost – but not quite!- to a comical extent) answer to the very direct question from our Head of Business Development Esther McCarthy about whether the soul (if we have a soul!) survives bodily death.
- The value of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ – is the vagueness of terms like the soul part of their value? Is there something about trying to define them too precisely that misses this point? Does that feel right and appropriate, or still somehow evasive?
- What can we learn from ‘soul splitting’ in Harry Potter?
- Body and soul: “duality does not entail dualism.”
- When we remember a person, are we really remembering their soul? A question from John Field FRSA that wasn’t answered; is this a good way to grasp what the soul is?
If thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.
- Iain has earned a deserved reputation as a thoughtful polymath with a sound grasp of sciences and humanities, but occasionally I feel he over-reacts to the fear of being thought to be a reductionist. His resolute ‘no’ in response to my question of whether science could ever help us make sense of the nature of the soul struck me as an overstatement.
- We didn’t quite establish the connection between belief in/acceptance of the soul and belief in/acceptance of ‘God’, and it would have been good to probe that important if obvious question a little further. Clearly Iain’s account of the soul is no ghost in the machine, but is there any sense in which a more dispositional perspective on the individual soul is isomorphic with respect to a universal soul?
- In response to the classical musical clip from the 16th century, one guest later told me that while it was assumed we were all touched, move and inspired, he personally didn’t feel it moved his ‘soul’ particularly, and wondered whether there was a presumption of cultural identification with meaning that was misplaced for those who don’t share the cultural tradition (he’s a highly intelligent Australian).
- Iain’s education and disposition makes his thought hyper-nuanced, but it can feel like the boundary between nuance and obscurity requires a third-party arbiter at times! Personally, I am never quite sure when it feels appropriate to press for further clarity. Perhaps this desire is what Iain would call ‘left hemisphere overreach’ – asking for too much precision- but there is something Protean about Iain’s thought that I, as one of his biggest fans, sometimes find frustrating.
- With hindsight, I should have tried harder to focus on the issue of ‘What happened to the soul?’ rather than what became the focus: ‘what is the soul?’ The questions are closely connected, but the result was that we heard from Iain the philosopher and I could perhaps have done more to draw out the Scientist; it felt to me, perhaps wrongly, like having the two together would give the fullest picture of the soul.
- Relatedly, I am very familiar with Iain’s bestseller ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which connects an analysis of neural anatomy and function to a theory of cultural history, but I should perhaps have taken more care to share some of the main ideas with the audience, which we examined closely for an RSA report last year: Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard. These ideas were implicit in much of the discussion, but a little unpacking of them might have helped to sharpen the key issues at stake.
In any case, I am pleased we have managed to draw attention to the cultural neglect of ‘the soul’, and I left feeling very glad we had hosted the event. Iain and the audience significantly moved along our thinking and opened up areas for further inquiry, not least on mental health.
On the other hand, and this is a positive point, there is something about these spirituality events that always leave me wanting more, as if the life changing revelation you naively hoped for is forever postponed until next time.
Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, and tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.
We are currently considering ideas and speakers for our 4th and 5th (of 6) public events in this series, so do get in touch if you have any suggestions on questions or speakers.