Quote Bait: Twenty thoughts on spirituality

January 5, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges deals with a weighty subject and the overall process of producing the report involved about 300 people over two years, so it’s not surprising the final report is relatively long – about 40,000 words over 92 pages; it’s half a book really. (Now there’s a thought…)

You can of course skim and dip, but if you want the full picture and the whole thing seems daunting, there is a 4000 word summary in the form of speech transcript here, and the video recording of the actual speech is here (4.30-23.20).

If even that is too much, I wrote a 1000 word summary here.

And if that’s still asking too much, I can only really offer bait in the hope of luring you in. So here are some of my favourite quotations from the report. I’ve given the page numbers so you can pursue them in context:

On page five:

1. “We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape. Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be. This is perhaps a place of power: we often experience this as deeply moving or inspiring.”

- Taylor, C. (2007) A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press p.5.

On page eight:

2. “I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do…I miss civilisation, and I want it back.”

- Marilynne Robinson (Quoted in London Review of Books, 23 October 2014 p20) See: www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n20/

On page nine:

3. “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

- Barnes, J. (2008) Nothing To Be Frightened Of. London: Jonathan Cape.

On page fifteen:

4. “Many atheists now consider ‘spiritual’ thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition (but) we must reclaim good words and put them to good use – and this is what I intend to do with ‘spiritual.’…There seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness.”

Harris, S (2012) In Defence of ‘Spiritual’. Online: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/a-plea-for-spirituality

On page thirty:

5. “I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.”

Jonathan Safran Foer responding to: ‘Do you believe in God?’, Radio4, Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cjm4c

On page thirty-nine:

6. “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”

- Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind. London: Penguin Books. p.281.

On page forty-five:

7. “I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies.”

- Williams, R. (2014) The Physicality of Prayer. New Statesman, 8 July, [Online] Available at: www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/07/after-god-how-fill-faith-shaped-holemodern-life

On page sixty eight:

8. “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.”

- Wei Wu Wei. (1963) Ask The Awakened. Routledge-Kegan Paul Ltd.

On page eighty-nine:

9. “In theory, freedom may be held in high regard; in practice it is experienced as a dizzying loss of meaning and direction.”

Batchelor, S. (1997) Buddhism without Beliefs. Riverhead Books. p110.

On page ninety-two:

10. ‘We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’.

Rohr, R. (1999). Everything belongs. Crossroad Publishing Company.

On page sixteen:

11. (Religion should not be seen as inherently divisive, but could also be seen and experienced as) “a secure base from which to explore, not a fence beyond which lies infidels.” – Elizabeth Oldfield (at first RSA workshop)

On page fourteen:

12. “The word spiritual has a history, and that history has a politics.”

- Matthew Engelke at first workshop.

On page fifty-one:

13. “In truth, the crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge: the practising life.”

-Sloterdijk, P. (2013) You Must Change your Life. Cambridge: Polity Press. P.11

On page fifty-six:

14. “‘God is Love’ became ‘love is God’.”
- May, S. (2011) Love: A History. London: Yale University Press.

On page fifty-nine:

15. “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

- Martin Luther King, Sourced from Kahane, A. (2010). Power and love: A theory and practice of social
change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

On page sixty-five:

16.  “…There’s no cheating death here; the meditator learns to stare down the vertiginous fact of her own mortality, unflinchingly and intentionally. And it’s in so doing that religious principles move from propositional beliefs into experiential reality…” – Joanna Cook (speaking at the RSA)

On page sixty-one:

17. “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 in the morning and make toast.”
- Will Self (speaking at the RSA)

On page sixty-eight:

18.“We are all engaged in a futile struggle to maintain ourselves in our own image.”

- Epstein, M. (2004) Thoughts without a thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective. Basic Books. p.44.

On page seventy-five:

19. “We can say that there is in every organism, at whatever level, an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfilment of its inherent possibilities”.

- Rogers, C. (1995). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

On Page ninety one

20. “We have had two centuries of a civilisation of unparalleled material progress, abundance and development based on extrinsic values (self-interest, materialism, economic growth, keeping up, social mobility); intrinsic ‘beyond-self’ and religious values have periodically been reasserted but they have lost their institutional hold and centrality to the stories that make sense of our lives. The extrinsic values celebrated by industrial society are now under real pressure in the West as scarcities begin to return and confidence in the future wanes, for good reasons of ecological disruption, social fragmentation and economic dysfunction and inequality.”

-Ian Christie (email communication)

@Jonathan_Rowson

Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges

December 27, 2014 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Today, after two years of preparation and a pause for Christmas dinner, we are publishing:  Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges

Put away your trumpets. Spirituality is a serious business. In Matthew Taylor’s words:

“The fact that the RSA – known for its work on policy issues like city growth, self-employment and public service reform – undertook this project is a sign of the growing importance being attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. Spirituality is coming into the mainstream. It could powerfully affect the way we approach major 21st century possibilities and challenges”

Matthew is right, and by no means alone in thinking that the world’s existing and emerging challenges are so complex, contested, interrelated, urgent and exacting that technocratic and technological solutions are unlikely to be sufficient, and may sometimes even compound matters. While instrumental and utilitarian thinking will always have its place, we need to re-engage with fundamental questions to deepen and broaden our perspective, and sharpen our sense of priorities  - What are we? What really matters? How should we live?

Read more

Peshawar: Something happened today

December 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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”

Injured student being evacuated

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?

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What is ‘the soul’ and why does it matter?

December 14, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.

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How to talk to spiritual swingers, religious diplomats and intellectual assassins

December 8, 2014 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.

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Towards a post-extrinsic society

November 26, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.

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RSA Event: Love, Death, Self, and Soul

November 20, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.

Claire Foster-Gilbert

  • 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.

Marina Benjamin

  • 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.

Spirituality, inbuilt

November 8, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Afghan man giving tea to a U.S. soldier

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[1]. 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.
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The Age of Awareness

October 20, 2014 by · 13 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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 Funny self-awareness imageand 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.

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Cloudy with a Chance of Mindfulness

October 6, 2014 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Light through clouds

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 [1]. 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

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