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 social movements 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:
*Update: see comment below for Tom Crompton’s reference to a study where sustained reflection on death led to a shift to intrinsic values, while people only briefly reflecting on death responded by chopping down lots of trees!*
“I face up to death but then I flip back into denial. Surely that’s what it’s like? I lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, absolutely terrified by the apprehension of my own dissolution…And then I go to sleep and wake up the morning and make toast.” - Will Self (c51.28)
Who would have thought death would be such a draw? The Twitter hashtag for last night’s public event: ‘Let’s Talk about Death’ was #rsadeath but the event was heavily oversubscribed, and in light of the struggle people had getting a seat in The Great Room, #rschairgate was suggested as an alternative. As the chair, there were some tense moments for me, as one might expect, and not least when Will Self appeared to be uncomfortably close to recommending suicide; although many said afterwards that if you’re serious about opening up this kind of discussion, nothing can really be off limits.
As indicated in my pre-event post: ‘We’re all going to die’, we put this event on because our denial of death is a key driver of how we live our lives and plan our societies; it is also a key component of whatever we think spirituality is, or should be. The discussion feels difficult at first blush, but once you open yourself to its ubiquity and significance, you almost wonder why people talk about anything else.
I thought the panel were excellent individually and complemented each other well. I offer a few select quotes and thoughts for now, with some analysis to follow when we have the manuscript.
The Philosopher and writer Stephen Cave gave a distilled overview of how human cultures have tried to evade death over time with informed contributions arising from his recent book on the perennial quest for immortality. I particularly liked his not altogether facetious suggestion near the end, imagining a family around the breakfast table posing themselves a familiar question with an important twist: “Given that we’re all going to die, what shall we do today?”
I was also struck by the way Stephen set the scene before unpacking details of research in social psychology(c05.00): “Death is a Taboo, maybe our last taboo…Death shifts you into a different gear…If you are religious you’ll now be feeling more religious. If you are patriotic you’ll now be feeling more patriotic. Whatever the core of your worldview is, because we’ve mentioned the death word, you’ll now be holding on to it more tightly and will more aggressively defend it.”
Joanna Cooke offered a compelling perspective based on her experience of spiritual practices as a Therevada Buddhist nun in Northern Thailand; further enriched by her athropological acumen. (c15.40) “In my own sitting I was aware of my own skeletal structure, and the muscles and sinews and so on that make up the body…But not just the body, my body; as in, me….So there is no cheating death here. The meditator learns to stare down the vertiginous fact of her own mortality, unflinchingly and intentionally….”
Joanna went on to quote Steve Jobs in celebrated Stanford commencement address in 2005: “Remembering you are going to die is the best way of avoiding the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Spacetime and ‘Lifedeath’
Will Self was typically unnerving, subversive and dark, but also brilliant, funny, substantively helpful, and periodically generous in spirit. I was particularly struck by his life/death continuim idea. Just as physicists now speak of ‘spacetime’ rather than seperate dimensions of space and time, so life and death are not really seperate things.Death is such an integral part of life that we should think of them as part of the same ontological or phenomenological fabric.
Will also made some challenging comments about the State’s need for military deaths as a kind of sacrificial rite to legitimase its ongoing monopoly of sanctioned violence Relatedly: (c1.09.30) “Surely there is nothing more obscene than the sight of a priest in military uniform. It really shows the whole charade up for what it is.” I was also struck by his sympathy for certain aspects of Christianity e.g. (c37.10)”When I say, as an agnostic, that religion does death well, what I mean is, that the part of me that is a genuine agnostic is swayed, under the influence of a Christian funeral. I couldn’t believe I think they do it well if I was sitting there thinking this is obviously…Sky-God nonsense, clearly part of me is responding.”
And later, in response to a question by Mark Vernon, I felt part of his answer was particularly elegant line (c49 mins): “What is interesting about Christianity is that it views salvation as simultaneously a dissolution and an actualisation of the ego.”
Beyond all the great contributions, my main reflection concerns the connection between the public salience of death and research in the social psychology of values championed by Common Cause. I will unpack this point in another post – because it’s a potentially huge issue, but in essence, if reflecting on our own deaths tends to promote intrinsic values(love, nature, craft) and weaken extrinsic values(fame, money, status), and concealing death has the opposite effect, our cultural representations of death clearly have much greater political and economic implications than we tend to realise.
On Monday June 23rd at 6pm I’ll be chairing ‘Let’s Talk about Death’ featuring Writer Will Self, Philosopher Stephen Cave and Anthropologist Joanna Cook. This event is the fourth in our series of six on reconceiving spirituality, which is part of a larger Social Brain Centre project on Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. We have completed public events on Spirituality, The Body, The Soul and, now, Death (though it’s not yet the end!..). We have also been busy with research behind the scenes, and our final report on the project is scheduled for publication in September. For now, some thoughts on death ahead of Monday…
Meditation is simply about being yourself, and knowing something about who that is. - Jon Kabat-Zinn.
(The following post is a selection of ideas and links to add some texture and critical apparatus to help people better engage with the growing mindfulness phenomenon. It is by no means an exhaustive account, and was written mostly to make sense of how mindfulness connects with RSA’s work, past and present, which I refer to at the end. While one can and should distinguish between mindfulness meditation and meditation in general, Kabat Zinn’s statement captures why RSA’s Social Brain centre is interested – mindfulness is a form of practice that helps to cultivate self-knowledge.) Read more
You may have noticed the media have recently been interested in the question of whether Britain is a Christian country. The story went something like this:
Prime minister David Cameron let it be known that his famously unreliable celestial radio reception has improved and not only does he ‘do God’ but suggests that more of us should do the same: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” Read more