Which is the odd one out?
If the question seems too easy, it is worth reflecting on that ways in which number 4 might be considered Pythonesque.
This is not a polemic. Humour can be a serious business. Before challenging any educational idea or policy one needs to accept that educational disagreements are all about value judgments, conceptual caveats and political compromises. It’s also difficult to know how valid a policy is without wider awareness -preferably international and historical- of what has been tried before. And if you manage all that, many would say you really have to have ‘been there’ with your own classroom experience.
On Friday I took part in an expert seminar/workshop on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education, abbreviated to SMSC; part of a fresh RSA Investigate-Ed approach to making sense of complex educational issues, organised by Joe Hallgarten. It was a relief to be asked to be speak about SMSC on the understanding that I didn’t have to pretend to be an expert, in the hope that my naivety would be constructive.
I was impressed by the depth and range of expertise in the room. There was a mixture of School Heads, frontline SMSC teachers e.g. RE, Citizenship, Ofsted inspectors and various kinds of researchers and education consultants. For most of these professionals SMSC is a given, a reality of their working lives, and the first thing I noticed was the language forms reflected this. Many spoke in terms of “How do we do SMSC?”
For an outsider this sounds really odd. As I said in my response, there is something Pythonesque about a situation where leading education experts assemble in an opulent room at the Royal Society for the Arts and discuss how to ‘do’ what sounds like a single discrete task (e.g. shall we do lunch?) but actually comprises four pillars of human civilisation – spiritual, moral, social and cultural – that presumably are what education is all about, rather than a single issue to be ‘done’.
Moreover, the idea that each of them can – in theory or practice – be disembedded from wider processes and taught explicitly also sounds slightly absurd. Surely there are SMSC dimensions in every walk of life, in every family, every city, every classroom? Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?
Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?
But such questions are the luxury of the outsider. I don’t have to go to work and be obliged to ‘do’ SMSC, nor think of how to measure it, or link it to other educational outcomes.
Nonetheless I did find myself asking my table: How did it come to this? What’s the history, the genealogy of SMSC?
That’s a research question in itself, but the quick answer appears to be tied to education acts in 1944 and 1988 – I will leave experts to flesh out the details, but from what I heard (and this should be checked) it sounds like S,M,S & C were originally alongside ‘physical and mental’ as six overarching domains/themes/goals of education, and then somewhere along the way there was a philosophical oversight, or ontological slippage whereby each of these dimensions ceased to be holistic goals of education as a whole, and instead became individual items, which could be separated out and taught.
The creation of ‘SMSC’ appears to have been a way of dealing with that evolution, but of course this is not merely a technocratic oversight that can be patched up, but rather a deep loss of perspective about what education is for, and for what teaching and learning should be about.
In case I sound like I think we should ‘call the whole thing off’, I really don’t. Each of these dimensions is hugely important, and we always have to play the hand we are given. I believe that doing/conceiving/reconceiving SMSC better might be a way to transform education ‘from the inside’ more broadly. In this respect, here are a few shorter points that might be relevant to this goal:
Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C?
- Throughout the discussion I kept thinking of Iain Mcgilchrist’s work on the difference ‘ways of being’ of the two hemispheres. The drive to measure outcomes of explicit instruction rather than judge the significance of implicit learning; and the focus on parts of the learning experience rather than the integrated whole- I felt all of that was there as a kind of background music to the discussion; and, for those who sense that too, Iain’s work helps make sense of why that might be so.
- I also felt there is an philosophical difference between ‘social’ and the other three dimensions. For me, with Social Brain hat on, I now see the social as constitutive of the other perspectives. We are so fundamentally, physiologically and psychologically ‘social’ that this grounds and shapes how we construct morality, culture and spirituality. If this subtle point sounds interesting to you, check out pages 10-15 of Transforming Behaviour change: What does it mean to say the Brain is ‘Social‘?
- There is much to say about the spiritual. My impression is that current framings and measures could be improved in various ways. There is a real danger that in a drive to be non-denominational all the rich content of the spiritual is thrown out. The main thing I would want to impart to children about the spiritual is a deeper appreciation for experience as such, and their own role in shaping their experience. You can’t do that with a textbook, but from a relatively early stage you can learn practices related to meditation that will teach them more about, for instance, their own minds and their own breathing. Personally, I believe that’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition for ‘doing’ spirituality well.
More generally, I was struck by the impression, perhaps mistaken, that teachers and schools sounded like they were in danger of doing SMSC to students rather than making it possible for them to acquire such understanding/appreciation/experience themselves.
Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C? It would be helpful to have more examples of the kinds of activities that would allow students to grasp such things for themselves through their own thoughts or action. In this respect, I was reminded of the following quote by Matthew Lipman (Philosophy in the Classroom, 1980, p13) which seems a good place to end this personal reflection:
“Meanings cannot be dispensed. They cannot be given or handed out (to children). Meanings must be acquired; they are capta, not data. We have to learn how to establish the conditions and opportunities that will enable (children), with their natural curiosity and appetite for meaning, to seize upon the appropriate clues and make sense of things for themselves… Something must be done to enable (children) to acquire meaning for themselves. They will not acquire such meaning merely by learning the contents of (adult) knowledge. They must be taught to think and, in particular, to think for themselves.”
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.
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.
“The People need to rise before the seas do” – Alice Bell
I felt a little bemused by the reactions to the IPCC report on Friday for three main reasons.
First, for those thinking about climate change for the last few years there was little new in the report. The most generous way to interpret the international public shift in understanding from ‘very likely’(90%) to ‘extremely likely’(95%) is that before Friday we merely knew that climate change is a real and present danger and caused by humans, now we know that we know.
Second, so many sceptics focused on the so-called fifteen year ‘pause’ in planetary warming of surface temperatures despite an ongoing increase in carbon dioxide. On the one hand this is fair and fundamental: if you say more X leads to more of Y, and there has been more of X, but no more of Y, people are entitled to question the relationship. On the other hand, there are really robust answers that the sceptics tend not to mention. First climate scientists don’t think it matters in terms of overall trends because the time window is too short(more X leads to more Y in the long term with periodic exceptions). Second, we have had a similar pause before, mid century, followed by a subsequent rapid increase in temperatures which is likely to happen again, and third, and for me most compellingly, those 15 years began with an outlier: 1998 was an exceptionally hot year because of a particular climactic event, an El Nino. If you take 1998 out of the picture, there is no pause.
Third, almost everybody seemed to be saying ‘we need to act‘, ‘time for action‘ and so forth, but few commentators said exactly how we should act. Alice Bell is right in her evocative line above- if the people don’t mobilise, governments won’t ‘act’ with sufficient speed and scale, markets won’t respond in their investment decisions, and the patterns of energy supply will continue.
I’m currently writing up a report on climate change that is about that ‘how’. Writing almost always takes longer than planned and is subject to Hofstadter’s law but in this case the delay has a more substantive basis. Shortly after writing the post “what kind of behaviour change does climate change call for” I realised that the difference between behaviour change for reducing domestic energy demand (how do you get people to insulate their lofts, turn down their thermostats, wash at lower temperatures, buy less imported goods from China etc) and behaviour change that might actually address the global challenge are not just slightly different, but based on completely different readings of the climate problem. Climate change is partly about behaviour and partly about technology, but I have come to believe that it’s mostly about money and power.
Simply stated, changing the domestic demand for energy, or ensuring that energy is used more efficiently in homes, offices and transport may have intrinsic benefits in terms of saving money, and not wasting precious resources. However, such changes do not contribute to addressing climate change unless they have a knock-on impact on global energy supply, and that is often a huge lacuna in particular policies, including the green deal.
Globally rising emissions(reductions in the developed world are entirely cancelled out by increases in the developing world) are caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which are the lifeblood of the global economy. Short of a global reduction in energy demand, as long as fossil fuels are significantly cheaper relative to other forms of energy, a global energy market will continue to use them, and we won’t be any closer to preventing significant planetary warming. And of course, fossil fuels are currently significantly cheaper than they might be because they are not taxed in a way that is commensurate with their social harm, indeed they are effectively subsidised; while the investment in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage are not incentivised by government in the way they need to be.
There is a role for decreasing energy demand and consumption more generally, but once you see climate change as being first and foremost a supply-side problem(the main goal is to keep fossil fuels in the ground) what you do about energy demand has to be much more focused, such that the impact on supply is more immediate and tangible. In the forthcoming report this idea is fleshed out with a detailed examination of how we might address rebound effects and patterns of climate denial in the British population.
The challenge then shifts from localised goals of reducing consumption or improving energy efficiency to something more ambitious: How can we use behavioural insight to get people to change, in ways that get governments to change, in ways that get markets to change. The crux of what it means to ‘act’ therefore involves recognising that markets follow government signals to make energy investment decisions, and governments follow democratic signals to make political decisions. The people need to rise before the seas do.
But how? I am tempted to say watch this space, but two of the main policy answers I am beginning to believe in are a rapid divestment in pension funds that invest in fossil fuels and an alternative to the EU Cap and Trade scheme known as ‘fee and dividend’ that ‘taxes’ carbon at source, but gives the money as a flat fee to the population, rather than to Government, while still incentivising reductions in energy demand.
Identifying policies to get behind is important to make sense of what it means to ‘act’. To gain traction the incipient climate movement we need to swiftly galvanise will require a positive story to believe in, so that when we are called upon to act, the action is not just against something intangible, destructive and dominant, but for something tangible, progressive and credible.
Following our Chief Executive’s post earlier today, it is with deep sadness that we report that Emma Lindley, a regular contributor to these pages over the last two years, died at the weekend. The following was prepared for an RSA staff meeting yesterday to commemorate her time with us.
RSA, September 18 2013
Emma once described herself as a Manchester-based drinker of Yorkshire tea. I think that line says a lot about her. She was warm, sassy, ready to laugh, with a keen eye for a good distinction. She was also proudly Northern in the sweetest sense of pride.
Steve Broome and I interviewed Emma for the role of Senior Researcher for Social Brain in the summer of 2011. She was the last of seven candidates on the day, and a welcome energising presence.
We were impressed by her intellect and social confidence but mostly by her capacity to keep things real.
A few months later while talking through a project plan, I kept referring excitedly, but a bit vaguely, to all the key issues we would explore at a policy seminar; the important people we would invite to the policy seminar; the media interest in the policy seminar…
Emma put up with this for a while but eventually asked a typically forthright question that I still haven’t quite managed to answer: “What is a policy seminar?”
Soon afterwards, Emma organised a meeting suspiciously resembling a policy seminar in the Shipley room. I introduced the participants but neglected to introduce our Coordinator Janet Hawken, who was sitting next to me, taking minutes.
I apologised to Janet at the time, but afterwards Emma took me to task, politely saying she was disappointed by the oversight, and this left a deep impression on me. Emma’s concerns were invariably focused on those who were in some sense taken for granted.
Her light shined particularly brightly in her blog posts, which were a new medium for her when she joined. She was nervous before posting her first piece: Mental Illness: The Last Taboo? but the coyness quickly passed when it received an unprecedented amount of positive feedback.
Over the next few weeks it became clear that Emma’s writing voice had depth and reach; a mixture of academic acumen, personal openness and polemical flair. Her posts continued to attract considerable attention, leading to several important contacts and project openings.
Her post, Networked Facts are the New Black (as I said, ready to laugh…) even reached deep inside the European Commission, when an RSA fellow at the EU foreign service sent an excerpt with a link to the senior advisers of EU Commissioners.
Her posts on The Atheist Hair Club and the The Importance of Art were so evocative that Andrew Park of Cognitive Media illustrated them in the style of RSAnimate. Andrew listens to RSA lectures for several hours before creating any image, so his multi-million viewer judgment on Emma’s writing suggests he saw something singular there.
While Emma enjoyed the public aspects of her job, her identity as a social scientist and researcher was primary. She really was Dr Emma Lindley. Her doctoral thesis on inclusive dialogue, which she wrote in the context of considerable personal challenges, seemed to me to be an outstanding mixture of careful analysis and thoughtful synthesis that managed to keep sight of real people with real emotions.
At the RSA she devised at least six research proposals for funding, including an innovative research design to determine whether talking to strangers on trains improves wellbeing, she designed strategies to help people with mental health conditions work more flexibly or become entrepreneurs, and latterly she was highly motivated to break down the barriers that prevent more people from cycling.
More generally, Emma was in her element while wrestling with large complex documents and clarifying their structure and messages. This hard-earned skill significantly enhanced the quality and impact of our reports on, for instance, Reflexive Coppers, and an evidence review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Another signature quality, stemming from her own innovative academic research was Emma’s eagerness to involve the people she was researching as fully as possible. For instance, she helped to develop a project on re-imagining adolescence and valuing adolescents which recently received pilot funding; but from the early stages she was very clear that she only wanted to be involved if adolescents themselves helped to shape the nature and purpose of the research.
Emma also played an important role in several successful funding applications, including our current 20 month project about using social brain perspectives to rethink the nature and value of spirituality.
In that case, and many others, her main contribution often began with a formidable capacity to rapidly build contacts and weave networks. She would find a number, pick up the phone, charm important information out of strangers, and follow the leads.
Before she went on sick leave earlier this year, Emma was becoming increasingly confident, autonomous, and hungry for more responsibility.
This confidence was reflected in her lead authorship of a commissioned piece of thought leadership on societal attitudes to ageing with a great title: “What older people want: Sex, Skydiving and Tatoos”. Emma found herself talking about the report on radio after publication, including on BBC’s popular ‘You and Yours’ programme (from c 5.30 mins in).
Although Emma had been away from work for over three months, the most recent updates from occupational health had been very encouraging. We were in the process of preparing for her gradual return to work and there seemed to be many things to look forward to.
While she was away, we learnt she had been part of a successful academic funding bid to pursue her interest in addressing mental health stigma, and one of her blog posts had been nominated for a prestigious award about public perceptions of ageing.
On Emma’s request, I recently sent an update on where we were with various Social Brain projects, and she left an upbeat email with Theresa, our HR manager, as recently as Friday.
But here we are just a few days later, in shock and in grief.
Emma made a deep and lasting impression on anyone who spent time with her. My main role in this context is to share details of her professional contribution, but I had written three more relatively personal and tortured paragraphs about my working relationship with Emma, about the joy of knowing her, the challenges relating to managing her condition, and how intense, rewarding and exacting working with her was.
Then, with relief, I realised that if Emma were here she would probably advise me to leave them out. And in many ways she still is, so I have.
The recent post ‘The Brains Behind Spirituality‘ received an unprecedented number of page views on this site. As many giving feedback have mentioned, there will always be the problem of definition, but as I mention in the above piece, for any given fuzzy edged form of knowledge or inquiry – including ‘spirituality’ – the question to ask is not so much- what’s the definition? But rather, what’s the injunction? Sometimes it is worth pinning something down in words to give analytic traction, but sometimes it is more productive to ask what our intuitive grasp of the idea asks us to do, think or be in a more general sense:
“…Every culturally sanctioned form of knowledge contains an implicit injunction. The injunction of science is to do the experiment and analyse the data. The injunction of history is to critically engage with primary and secondary sources of evidence. The injunction of philosophy is to question assumptions, make distinctions and be logical. If spirituality is to be recognised as something with ontological weight and social standing, it also needs an injunction that is culturally recognised, as it was for centuries in the Christian west and still is in many societies worldwide.
The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.”
Of course, such expansive self-knowledge is not about narcissism but quite the opposite- it’s about seeing beyond our limited conception of who we are; through experience and the best available evidence. The following three sources speak to this spiritual injunction in various ways:
1. Rowan Williams on ‘spirituality’ in the Guardian.
“I’d like to think, at the very least, that spiritual care meant tending to every possible dimension of sense of the self and each other, that it was about filling out as fully as possible human experience” -Rowan Williams.
While Williams rightly has reservations with the way the term spiritual is used and misused, this sentiment relates closely to our perspective mentioned above.
2. Secular Buddhism and Secular Christianity
The general spiritual injunction to know oneself beyond the confines of the ego is different from the particular religious injunctions about how to do that, but they are related in important ways. In this respect I was fascinated to discover a conversation between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt organised by The Secular Buddhist Association and chaired by the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting. Both Batchelor (in Buddhism) and Cupitt (in Christianity) are known for deep absorption, training and experience in their respective traditions, followed by letting go of the tenets that underpin them, but, crucially, without disavowing the religious tradition as a whole(In Scotland, Richard Holloway is similar). Here are a few choice quotes from the transcript:
Stephen Batchelor: “I feel myself to be a religious person, but I feel that to be more the case in terms of the sorts of questions that most deeply motivate me. What is this life, what is death? Rather than religious in the sense of adhering to a particular set of dogmas or doctrines or beliefs. In some ways this is a sense of religion that is quite close to the old Greek understanding of philosophia, of the love of wisdom, of philosophy.”
Don Cupitt: ”It was in the sixties that we began to get a shift away from institutional religion towards spirituality. A shift away from ecclesiastical theology towards what I call kingdom religion, a shift away from the supernatural Nicene Creed to the original historical Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount…The important thing: people were giving up two-world dualism and accepting that this life is all there is, and you’d better start living the last kind of life in the last world now. Because this is the last life you’ll ever have. You’re already living in the last world.”
Stephen Batchelor: “…I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly… So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life”
3. Beyond Dawkins: New editor at the The New Humanist
Finally, I was pleased to read the following hard headed and conciliatory piece by the new Editor of the magazine of UK’s Rationalist association(The New Humanist) Daniel Trillings, because it is important to recognise that valuing reason and challenging orthodoxies does not have to mean zealous disdain for religion:
“Declaring one’s self a non-believer, or an atheist, is not a free pass to the sunlit uplands of truth and reason. And if you regard organised religion as merely a product of misguided beliefs, then you lose the ability to understand why it grows and changes historically, and why politicised forms of religion are so attractive to millions of people around the world. Psychological studies that throw up conclusions like “religious people are less intelligent than atheists” not only rely on an extremely narrow definition of “intelligence”, but as their own authors will point out, are influenced by factors such as employment, salary and time spent in the education system.”
With this kind of generosity of spirit, I’m looking forward to future issues of the magazine.
By Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director, Social Brain Centre. Follow at @jonathan_rowson
80% of emails are a waste of time? I almost used that as a headline for a brief blog, and that’s the statistic doing the rounds at the moment, but on closer inspection that ‘statistic’ looks like a guesstimate given to a journalist by a consultant with a vested interest in advertising his services….which is not to say he is not broadly correct(!).
“While email can sometimes be a quick and convenient way to gauge interest or disseminate information, it’s often not the best tool for the job, he said. About 20% of the time, we’re using email correctly – leveraging it to communicate across time zones or answer a well-defined question. But 80% of email traffic is “waste,” he said – stuff that’s useless or really requires a phone call or face-to-face discussion.” – Andrew Killick.
While the context of that quotation should give us pause, there is some revealing research behind it. The main finding that struck me is that people in leadership positions in organisations appear to set the trend for how much email is sent and how well it is used and that rather than changing such behaviour by dictat, it might be just as effective to change their own email behaviour and lead by example.
The study by the University of Glasgow and Modeuro Consulting, which I found via The Mind Gym’s President, Dr Sebastian Bailey on Twitter (@DrSebBailey), The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review (so the word is out…) goes beyond the usual advice e.g. be careful who you CC, be clear in the initial email to avoid unnecessary follow-ups, think twice before forwarding something to keep people in the loop, you don’t have to give one word responses like ‘yes’ or ‘thanks’, email volume may be inversely correlated with organisational trust since people feel obliged to leave a textual trail etc…).
The main point is about how hierarchy shapes organisational norms:
From the HBR piece: “The main reason our e-mail in-boxes consume so much of our time is that we have little control over how many messages we receive. But we can control how many messages we send. That seemingly obvious insight sparked a significant reduction in one company’s e-mail traffic: After the executives reduced their output, other workers followed suit.”
From the Wall Street Journal piece: “The initiative, (revealing how much of email is waste) led to a 54% drop in the number of emails sent by the executive team. The company’s 73 other London-based employees began following suit, even though they hadn’t received specific instructions. Their drop in output was 64%. Ultimately, the company gained 10,400 hours annually, freeing them up to work on bigger, more important projects.
So if there is a take home message here it may be the one we intuitively know already but struggle to put into practice. Some emails are good because we choose not to send them, but perhaps our most productive emails are the ones we choose not to write at all.
“Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic.”
- Ambrose Beirce, The Devil’s Dictionary
The desire to define key terms is understandable, but it is often only pseudo-intelligent, because as Ambrose Beirce suggests, the effect of pinning a word down is often to drain the life out of it.
Still, while designing a national survey on attitudes to climate change recently, I sought out a cogent definition of the term/phenomenon/fact/idea that could be used as a quick and comprehensible reference point for debate and discussion. I googled until it hurt, asked around various people working in the field, sent out a few speculative tweets, and zip, nothing suitable came back.
The definitions were either too short (e.g. The planet is getting hotter, we’re causing it, it’s bad, we should do something about it) or too long, complex or jargon heavy (see Wikipedia’s first paragraph here for instance).
The issue is not just that one person’s climate change is another’s global warming, or whether ‘anthropogenic’ is a necessary adjective. The purpose of the short definition is not to close down alternative ideas and interpretations, but rather a pragmatic way to avoid talking at cross purposes.
To do full justice to the science, politics, economics and technology surrounding climate change, we would need many more words and caveats, but for the purpose of the survey (and more generally…) we needed something that described and explained the phenomena, indicated the scientific consensus and highlighted the human relevance. Finding a form of words for this task was surprisingly challenging.
Eventually (with help from Emma Lindley and Ian Christie) I managed to squeeze it in to 135 words, and came up with the following:
The earth’s climate is complex and has always changed over long periods, but there is now a scientific consensus that the climate system is being disrupted rapidly, as a result of human actions.
According to a significant majority of scientific experts in the field of climatology, disruptive climate change is being caused principally by those human activities that currently depend upon energy derived from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil.
These activities have resulted in a growing concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which over time is likely to make weather patterns increasingly irregular and unpredictable.
The human impact of this change will vary from place to place but might include an increased prevalence of storms, droughts and flooding, and could undermine the security of water, food and energy supplies.
How does that sound?
There is a meta-question on what basis one should judge the quality of a definition, and clearly it’s not just about a show of hands, but for what it’s worth the representative national survey indicated that 59% of the UK population found this definition fairly convincing or very convincing.
So two questions arise:
1. What kind of score would we expect the ‘optimal’ definition to achieve? (keeping in mind the purpose of accessibility/agreement)
2. How might this particular definition be improved without adding significantly to the word count?
“As words and thought are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it…Like ghosts, angels, gods, ‘self’, it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning purpose, the purpose narrative. But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the ‘I’ to slip away.”
- Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p 330-331.
For those who want to know more, I recommend an essay by Tim Parks in today’s Aeon magazine.
“The main curriculum of your life. No sooner had I read that phrase than I kept repeating it, mulling it over. I saw at once that, far more than the time itself, the hour count, what was at stake here was a major principle. Instead of taking my work with me to hospital waiting rooms, dealing with my troubles as if I was getting the car fixed, my eye on my watch and my hand on my wallet, I would have to accept a radical shift of priorities. The pain must be allowed to come on board and take equal status beside my writing, beside my family, as part of the core curriculum.” - Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p160
Climate change is about much more than words, but words matter. In this respect, leaving aside the important victory to keep climate change on the national curriculum, there is a much deeper sense in which climate change needs to become part of ‘the main curriculum’ of everybody’s lives.
This declaration is ultimately just a form of words, but these particular words may help to reframe the necessary gestalt shift, so that we start to go way beyond ‘raising awareness’ or ‘engagement’ on the issue, which hasn’t really helped sufficiently to shift inertia. Here is where this idea of ‘main curriculum’ comes from, and why it might matter:
”‘We strongly advise sufferers,’ wise went on, ‘to accept these pains as part of the main curriculum of their lives.’ The main curriculum!”
Almost three years ago I read Tim Parks’s wonderful non-fiction book: Teach us to Sit Still, in preparation for him speaking at an RSA event on mindfulness. The book is a darkly humorous and profound examination of a particularly embarrassing medical condition, and an improbable journey back to health, eventually through meditation. The turning point in his recovery is when he stops trying to wish the problem away as an extraneous irritant (‘an inconvenient truth’) and really faces up to it as an enduring challenge that needed his steadfast time and attention. What was striking for me is that a particular form of words helped to make this shift.
In the following section Parks is at one of the many clinics he attended, looking for something to take the persistent pain away, and he recounts listening to a Dr Wise, author of A Headache in the Pelvis as follows:
Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p 159:
“‘Many of our patients are simply too busy to dedicate themselves to our treatment’, Wise and Anderson observed. ‘These people, men and women, were not yet suffering enough. They still saw their pains as an irritating waste of time, a distraction to put behind them as quickly as possible. Hence they were drawn to accounts of their illness that saw a rapid solutions in drugs, or in surgical operation. No personal energies need be expended. It could be paid for. Hopefully by the State.’
This described my thinking, at least until very recently, with ominous accuracy.
“We strongly advise sufferers,” wise went on, “to accept these pains as part of the main curriculum of their lives.”
The main curriculum!
Would I have to stop referring to my pains as stupid?
Wise’s position, a little pious-sounding to my ear, was that this chronic and worsening condition was trying to tell me something about myself, about the way I had been living, and I was supposed to listen. I would have to give my pains the time of day.”
This perspective is powerful because one of the main aspects of the climate change challenge is how to bring more attention to the urgency of the issue, and what prevents that is precisely the kind of “hoping it will go away” attitude that many take to irritating health issues that are not yet causing enough suffering to be heeded.
The climate challenge calls for unprecedented political, social, economic and technological innovation and we probably need to consume less, but the speed and effectiveness of such solutions ultimately depend upon what the population thinks and cares about on a regular basis. That point is not self-evidently true, but one tangible way to think about it is that investment decisions and political will on climate change are currently shaped by vested interests that civil society needs to be mobilised to challenge.
A big part of this challenge is to find ways to make climate change ‘run through’ people’s lives. (The literal meaning of curriculum is to run the course, as in curriculum vitae- the course of my life). We need to link concerns about climate change more closely to the experiences and values that ‘run through’ people’s lives, including their work, their families, their health and their homes. How do we do that? It’s not easy, but The Social Brain Centre has precise figures on the nature of the challenge and plans to pilot solutions that we’ll share in a forthcoming report).
Given the scale and urgency of the climate change challenge we need new forms of language as much as we need new technologies and new policies. With this in mind, I humbly submit that we need to start thinking of how we can make climate change part of ‘the main curriculum’ of our lives.
Dr Jonathan Rowson can be followed on Twitter at @jonathan_rowson
The Summer issue of the RSA Journal features the following essay outlining the intellectual context for a new project by the Social Brain Centre. We are examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large.
We are currently completing our background research for a series of forthcoming workshops and public events, culminating in a final report in 2014.
The Brains Behind Spirituality
Immanuel Kant said that the impact of liberal enlightenment on our spiritual life was such that if somebody were to walk in on you while you were on your knees praying, you would be profoundly embarrassed. That imagined experience of embarrassment is still widely felt in much of the modern western world, not merely for religious believers, but for the silent majority who consider themselves in some sense ‘spiritual’ without quite knowing what that means. This sense of equivocation is felt when we hear the term ‘spiritual’ referred to apologetically in intellectual contexts. Consider, for instance, ‘the mental, emotional or even spiritual qualities of the work’, or ‘the experience was almost spiritual in its depth and intensity’.
This unease with public discussions of spirituality is not universal and clearly varies within and between countries. Perhaps the embarrassment is a peculiar affliction of western intellectuals, since ‘spiritual’ appears to convey shared meaning perfectly well in ordinary language throughout most of the world. This intellectual unease matters because spiritual expression and identification is an important part of life for millions of people. But it currently remains ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, lacks credibility in the public domain.
“many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief” – Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr astutely opened a recent BBC discussion by referring to the “increasingly hot-tempered public struggle between religious believers and so-called militant atheists, and yet many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief”. There is some empirical backing for this claim. Post-Religious Britain: The Faith of the Faithless, a 2012 meta-analysis of attitude surveys by the thinktank Theos, revealed that about 70% of the British population is neither strictly religious nor strictly non-religious, but rather moving in and out of the undesignated spaces in between. While the power of organised Christian religion may be in decline, only about 9% are resolutely atheistic, and it is more accurate to think of an amorphous spiritual pluralism that needs our help to find its form.
The point of rethinking spirituality is not so much to challenge these boundaries, but to clarify what it means to say that the world’s main policy challenges may be ultimately spiritual in nature. When you consider how we might, for instance, become less vulnerable to terrorism, care for an ageing population, address the rise in obesity or face up to climate change, you see that we are – individually and collectively – deeply conflicted by competing commitments and struggling to align our actions with our values. In this respect, we are relatively starved for forms of practice or experience that might help to clarify our priorities and uncover what Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan calls our immunity to change. The best way to characterise problems at that level is spiritual.
There are so many dimensions to spirituality that it is necessary to qualify what we are talking about. Personally, I think of it principally as the lifelong challenge to embody one’s vision of human existence and purpose, expressed most evocatively in Gandhi’s call to be the change you want to see in the world. Others may place greater emphasis on the forms of experience that inspire the changes we want to see, or the realities we need to accept.
Personally, I think of the spiritual principally in terms of the lifelong challenge to embody one’s vision of human existence and purpose, expressed most evocatively in Gandhi’s call to be the change you want to see in the world.
Being spiritual can mean safeguarding our sense of the sacred, valuing the feeling of belonging or savouring the rapture of intense absorption. And then there is the quintessential gratitude we feel when we periodically notice, as gift and revelation, that we are alive.
Such experiences do not depend upon doctrine or on institutional endorsement or support. They are as likely to arise listening to music, walking in nature, celebrating the birth of a child, reflecting on a life that is about to end, or losing oneself – in a good sense – in the crowd. With such a rich range of dimensions, it is regrettable that spirituality is still framed principally through the prism of organised religion. But it is perhaps no less unfortunate that those who value spiritual experience and practice are often suspiciously quick to disassociate themselves from belief in God and religion, as if such things were unbearably unfashionable and awkward, rather than perhaps the richest place to understand the nature of spiritual need.
Spiritual but not religious
While there has been a growing normalisation of the idea that a person can be ‘spiritual but not religious’, this designation may actually compound the problem of intellectual embarrassment. It does nothing to clarify what spirituality might mean outside of religious contexts, nor how religion might valuably support and inform non-believers. People in this category get attacked from both sides; from atheists for their perceived irrationality and wishful thinking, and from organised religion for their rootless self-indulgence and lack of commitment. And the category of spiritual but not religious hardly does justice to the myriad shades of identification and longing within it and outside it. What are we to make, for instance, of the fact disclosed in the same Theos report, that about a quarter of British atheists believe in human souls?
Such findings highlight that spiritual embarrassment is grounded in confusion about human nature and human needs. We struggle to speak of the spiritual with coherence mostly because it has been subsumed by historical and cultural contingency, and is now smothered in an uncomfortable space between religion and the rejection of religion. Surely religions are the particular cultural, doctrinal and institutional expressions of human spiritual needs, which are universal? In this respect, is it not the sign of a spiritually degenerate society that many feel obliged to define their fundamental outlook on the world in such relativist and defensive terms? Compare the designations: ‘educated, but not due to schooling’ or ‘healthy, but not because of medicine’.
There must be a better place to begin the inquiry. The categorisation spiritual but not religious still tacitly assumes the most important question to interrogate is which version of reality we should subscribe to, rather than what it might mean to grow spiritually in a societal context where for most people belief in God need feel neither axiomatic nor problematic. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer highlighted the depth of this point on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme when he responded to the question of what he believed by saying: “I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.”
One major challenge in making the spiritual more tangible and tractable is, therefore, to enrich our currently impoverished idea of what it means to believe. To believe something is often assumed to mean endorsing a statement of fact about how things are, but that is both outdated and unhelpful.
Consider the story of two rabbis debating the existence of God through a long night and jointly reaching the conclusion that he or she did not exist. The next morning, one observed the other deep in prayer and took him to task. “What are you doing? Last night we established that God does not exist.” To which the other rabbi replied, “What’s that got to do with it?”
The praying non-believer illustrates that belief may be much closer to what the sociologist of religion William Morgan described as “a shared imaginary, a communal set of practices that structure life in powerfully aesthetic terms”. Within the same discipline Gordon Lynch suggests this point needs deepening: “The unquestioned status of propositional models of belief within the sociology of religion arguably reflects a lack of theoretical discussion… about the nature of the person as a social agent.”
It is therefore time to question the common default position that emphasises the autonomous individual striving to consciously construct their own religious belief system as a guide to how they should act in the world. It is not just about sociality. The emerging early 21st century view of human nature indicates we are fundamentally embodied, constituted by evolutionary biology, embedded in complex online and offline networks, largely habitual creatures, highly sensitive to social and cultural norms, riddled with cognitive quirks and biases, and much more rationalising than rational.
It is time to question the common default position that emphasises the autonomous individual striving to consciously construct their own religious belief system as a guide to how they should act in the world.
Such a shift in perspective is important because every culturally sanctioned form of knowledge contains an implicit injunction. The injunction of science is to do the experiment and analyse the data. The injunction of history is to critically engage with primary and secondary sources of evidence. The injunction of philosophy is to question assumptions, make distinctions and be logical. If spirituality is to be recognised as something with ontological weight and social standing, it also needs an injunction that is culturally recognised, as it was for centuries in the Christian west and still is in many societies worldwide.
The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.
Such self-knowledge is a deeply reflexive matter. The point is not to casually introspect, but rather to strive to connect our advanced third-person understanding of human nature with a growing skill in observing how one’s first-person nature manifests in practice, and to test the validity and relevance of this experience and understanding in second-person contexts. In this sense, spirituality is about I, we and it, and this process of trying to know oneself more fully, both in understanding and experience, is therefore no mere prelude to meaningful social change, but the thing itself.
The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible.
There are many ways to illustrate how new conceptions of human nature might revitalise our appreciation for the spiritual. The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s work on the competing worldviews of the two brain hemispheres offers a new perspective on the challenge of creating balance in one’s thought and life. Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist, has suggested that we can’t really do anything about our innumerable cognitive frailties, but this questionable claim is challenged by mindfulness practices, where we can see and feel the root cause of some of our mental tendencies and biases more viscerally. And cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s idea that thinking is fundamentally grounded in bodily metaphors gives us new appreciation for our need to be touched, moved or inspired on a regular basis.
The point of reconsidering spirituality through such lenses is not to explain away spiritual content. We do not want to collapse our deliciously difficult existential and ethical issues into psychological and sociological concepts. The point is rather to explore the provenance of those questions and experiences with fresh intellectual resources.
Returning to Kant, if enlightenment in his view was about humanity emerging into adulthood, one corollary is that unquestioning subservience to organised religion may now be condemned as immature. However, the deeper implication is that we need to rediscover or develop mature forms of spirituality, grounded both in what we can never really know about our place in the universe, and what we can know – and experience – about ourselves.
By Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director, RSA Social Brain Centre. Follow @Jonathan_Rowson