Earlier today 132 schoolchildren were shot dead in their school uniforms, in a premeditated attack by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan.
An eyewitness remarked: “They did not come with the intention to take hostages. Their purpose was to kill children”
photo via BBC website
Shocking, yes. Yes, it’s terrible. Awful. Did you see? Yes, I know.
But the news comes at a time of Christmas parties and compassion fatigue.
But yes, it’s unbelievable. The children. The faces. The horror. How could they do that?
Hang on, how *could* they do that?
The following transcription came from a speech that formed part of a series of six public events within RSA Social Brain Centre’s project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. The final report of this project, outlined here will be published later this month.
What Happened to the Soul?
Iain McGilchrist, RSA, 31 March 2014
There was a piece in the papers not very long ago by a quite well known team in America who do neuroimaging and they’re particularly interested in moral values. And they found that by suppressing activity in the right temporoparietal region they caused a failure to understand the nature of moral judgements.
Well, this wasn’t a surprise to me, anyone who knows my book would suggest that that was probably going to happen. They set up a scenario of Grace, hoping to put sugar in her friend’s coffee but actually by mistake putting poison in, and her friend died. In the other scenario Grace intended to poison her friend but put sugar in and the friend lived. In the normal state we probably think it was worse to intend to poison; but the good old left hemisphere on its own thought, in what is basically an autistic way, that the outcome was the important measure.
Well, that’s all very interesting. But then these neuroscientists, and I won’t mention their names to spare them their blushes here, finished up by saying, “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it’ll be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.” Well, I hope you can see that there might be a category mistake in there; everything that goes through human experience has its brain correlates, but of course it doesn’t mean that that’s all there is to it.
The following 4200 words are a distilled version of our forthcoming report on spirituality, scheduled for publication later this month, and they are also the text of a speech I gave at the final event. On the day, it felt wrong to be so controlled on a subject like spirituality so I chose to speak to the audience more directly, but here is the more considered version of what I planned to say:
Love, Death, Self and Soul:
Spirituality worth fighting for
Jonathan Rowson, RSA, November 19, 2014
The esteemed psychotherapist Carl Rogers said that what is most personal is most universal. I offer my perspective on leading our project on spirituality with that in mind, and start with a simple observation.
Spirituality does curious things to people’s facial expressions.
While running this project over the last two years I have noticed that facial expressions are the preludes to a range – three in particular – of more or less archetypal responses to conversations about spiritual matters.
The most welcome response comes from the ‘spiritual swingers’. Spiritual swingers perk up at the mention of the spiritual but look at you a little too eagerly and intensely for comfort. They are excited by all things non-material that point to a deeper, fuller, more cuddly world, but for them the spiritual appears to be one big unwieldy umbrella; everything from meditation to massages; mysticism to monasteries, moonshine to mindfulness. They’re up for anything, as long its ‘spiritual’.
Slightly more uneasy were my encounters with the ‘religious diplomats’ who look at you warmly but quizzically, because they support your endeavour but can’t figure out whether you are one of them at heart, validating or revitalising their view of the world, or perhaps you are seeking to supplant their established ways with something unhinged that they don’t altogether trust?
But the ‘intellectual assassins’ are the worst. They hear ‘spiritual’ and respond with a look of discomfort bordering on disgust, followed by disdainful frowns. They are the quickest to ask for a definition of the spiritual, but usually with the express purpose of taking it down with words of their own.
The public realm faces significant challenges that cannot be adequately addressed by instrumental, utilitarian thinking. By public realm I mean the political economy and all the educational, commercial, civic and media institutions related to it; all of which, of course, have human beings inside them.
This is a hopeful point, not a council of despair. As thinkers like Steven Pinker are fond of reminding us, in some ways the world is not doing that badly at all; compared to much of human history, most of us live longer healthier lives in societies that are more or less functional and peaceful. Still, I’m not the only one who occassionally has the impression that, slowly but surely, we are losing our way.
Last night’s RSA event examined a profound yet largely unexplored possibility in the 21st century: integrating a modern reconception of spirituality (grounded in an increasingly sophisticated understanding of human nature) into the public realm. Four speakers – Dr. Jonathan Rowson, director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre; Claire Foster-Gilbert, founder and director of the Westminster Abbey Institute; Dr. Andrew Samuels, psychotherapist and author of Politics on the Couch; and Marina Benjamin, author and senior editor of Aeon magazine – presented moving explorations of what it might mean to introduce post-religious spirituality into public life. I invite you to watch the full video of the event above, and/or browse highlight quotes illustrating their fascinating perspectives on spirituality and society below:
Dr. Jonathan Rowson
- The spiritual is broadly [about] 3 questions: what are we, how should we live, and why are we here? And we are beginning to understand [the first question] better, not just from 3rd person scientific perspectives, but from 1st person perspectives as well.
- Most of the time in this project, when something happened that was meaningful, there was a very deep felt sense, sometimes find yourself really hanging on a word, and it was usually when people spoke from personal experience.
- The spiritual injunction to “wake up” is grounded in an increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding that we are not only creatures of habit, but habit-forming creatures.
- It’s obviously the people, [the] institutions, it’s in the air… this huge longing for depth, for the chance to think about what it is that we’re trying to do as public servants.
- If I didn’t have 1000 years of Benedictine spirituality to draw on, I would be nothing. I simply couldn’t do it. So what I really want to say is… don’t give up on the old religions. We need them, we need their story, we need their history, we need all the mistakes that they’ve made over the millennia. All the recognitions of the dangers of spirituality.
Professor Andrew Samuels
- If you change only the material conditions, if you change only the constitutional and legal frameworks, then you can’t refresh the parts that the spiritual bit can refresh. You have to do both, one isn’t more important than the other. Becoming individuated is not more important than the revolution, and vice versa.
- One of the reasons why religions survived, down the millennia, is because they are themselves post-religious. They change and adapt to the circumstances that we find ourselves in as humans. We make them, we reshape them to our needs, they adapt in time.
All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death. All love life.
See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?
— Buddha, Dhammapada 129-130
An Unfamiliar Skill
It seems safe to say now, at this point in the 21st century, that there is more to life than we can see. The reality each of us experiences on a daily basis is quite assuredly our own “personal take” on what reality actually is. Read any recent popular psychology book (e.g., this one) and observe the large range of mental filters we unknowingly apply to our experience of life, day in and day out. The end result is that we don’t see things as they really are, we see them as we are. Curiously, our bodies and brains are born predisposed to grow two things (1) a personal take on the world and ourselves, and (2) the rather unfamiliar capacity to move beyond it. Many humans have referred to this latter capacity as spirituality.
Coaching. Psychotherapy. Meditation. Spirituality. Self-improvement. Self-love. What do these seemingly different collective trends have in common?
There are over 10 different forms of coaching, each with countless associated techniques and exercises. There are over 500 different forms of psychotherapy, most with similar degrees of efficacy. There are over 20 forms of meditation and paths to the spiritual. Available self-improvement and self-love techniques are too numerous to list here. The supply of these services in the market has skyrocketed, which is a likely indicator that high demand from us, consumers, is also present. But what is driving the high demand for these services? What are we collectively seeking as a society, as individuals? What do we long for or hunger for? I may be able to provide a tentative answer to this question only because the longing is also present in me. And, at this level of depth, you and I are not so different.
The answer to the question, I believe, is self-awareness. We long to know ourselves more deeply. But why? Well, there is reason to believe that we are beginning to recognize our deep need for it.
So, at the beginning of your mindfulness practice… Oh, and by ‘beginning,’
I mean the first 15 years…
- Joseph Goldstein speaking at a 3-month silent mindfulness retreat
At the heart of today’s mindfulness debate lies the uncomfortable question of expertise. What does it take to become a mindfulness expert? Although it may not be an ideal measure of expertise, the figure of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice has been considered to be a rough indicator of it . How then, if we apply this figure, do modern mindfulness instructors measure up? It certainly varies from person to person, but recently, a mindfulness coach intimated his belief that 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day, for 40 days, was a sufficient foundation for teaching others – a regimen amounting to a total of 13 hours and 20 minutes of actual practice. And by actual practice I mean meditation.
So, at that rate, how long would it take to become an “expert”? Read more
If spirit is a name for the resistant and transcending faculties of the agent, we can spiritualize society. We can diminish the distance between who we are and what we find outside of ourselves. - Roberto Unger, The Self Awakened p38.
A few months ago I wrote an extended post about the relationship between the spiritual and the political. The pied piper of our generation, Russell Brand, momentarily adopted it as part of his ‘revolution in consciousness’, tweeted approvingly to his millions, and thousands followed his tune to our website. Happy days.
The political dimension of spirituality is exciting because it’s ‘the vision thing’, it’s about being human, about who we are and what we care about. It’s depth and values and hope and how it all fits together. Moreover, as noted above, it is intellectually safe terrain because even heavyweight philosophers like Roberto Unger take it seriously.
The elusive place where the spiritual meets the political is perhaps the experience of life many of us are looking for; a place where the possibilities for your own power and place in the world make sense. When you are living in that place, life tends to be much more rewarding. For instance, I was heavily involved in Scotland’s recent referendum and campaigning felt distinctly spiritual, a way of connecting identity with meaning and purpose. There was an intense feeling of aliveness for many weeks, which is, etymologically at least, close to the heart of the spiritual.
Love is a fundamental feature of how people seek to create meaning in their lives, but what do we really know about the nature, experience, and history of love; about its breadth and depth and ubiquity? What, if anything, is common to our love of life, love of God and/or love of reason; maternal love, romantic love, love of work, good and bad forms of self-love, love of friends, love of places, love of books, love of ideas, love of RSA public events…
Here are ten of my favourite quotations on love as an appetiser ahead of Thursday’s event at 6pm, What kind of love do we need?, including three from our prospective speakers Devorah Baum, Simon May and Mark Vernon: