What kind of love do we need?

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

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: 

Read more

Now there’s a thought: if space+time= spacetime, does life+death= lifedeath?

June 24, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

*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.

@Jonathan_Rowson

We’re all going to die.

June 17, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

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…

Read more

Mindfulness: more than a fad, less than a revolution.

April 30, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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

Thinking of the UK as ‘post-Christian’ is surprisingly helpful.

April 28, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

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

Beyond the Bunnies – Why Easter is for Grown Ups

April 17, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.

I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas. Read more

Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul?

April 1, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides (Eugene Gendlin). Perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’. – Iain McGilchrist

 

 

Monday night’s event in the RSA Great Room, “What Happened to the Soul?” by Iain McGilchrist, can be viewed above in all its unedited grit and glory.

This was the third event of six in the spirituality series, following from events one and two. Some more considered analysis on this third event will follow when we can quote from the full transcript currently being prepared, but for now, here goes:

It is always hard to judge the success of public events, especially when you’re part of them, but there have been many positive responses (‘tremendous’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’) from people whose judgment I respect, and the people watching had plenty to say on Twitter, though I suppose that might just represent moral support or twitchy fingers.

My impression is that the questions and answer session (from c35 mins in) was particularly spirited, and may be worth cutting to directly to get animated and engaged by the ideas, before returning to the more intricate substance of the talk, which of course contained lots of wonderful material to think about too.

Mental Health

I think the biggest issue, and one I hope to come back to, concerns the scope to think about some mental health problems (perhaps mild to moderate forms of depression in particular) as a form of ‘soul sickness’. This reframing is informed by Iain’s account of the role of suffering in ‘growing a soul’(though he was emphatic that nobody should suffer acute mental ill health for a moment longer than necessary) and what might follow for the appropriate use of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

This is a big and complex issue, and a large part of the potential practical value of reconceiving spirituality, as indicated by our three research workshops(the content of which will be shared in our final project report, due in October.). Iain is clearly by no means the only person working in the broad mental health domain to think something resembling ‘spirituality’ may be important it not essential for mental health.

As a Psychiatrist, Iain would not be so facile as to say such a reframing is always appropriate or that it always helps significantly. However, if thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.

Highlights:

A fuller account of that argument will follow, but for now, if you find time to watch the video, look out for:

  • “Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul…” (A perennial quotation of uncertain provenance!)
  • The need for ‘the soul’ as a concept – why the substitutes don’t cut it as a way of capturing certain qualities of experience.
  • The joke about the poor man repeatedly praying to win the lottery, whom God finally speaks to by saying: “Meet me half way, buy a ticket.”
  • Iain’s intensely metaphorical (almost – but not quite!- to a comical extent) answer to the very direct question from our Head of Business Development Esther McCarthy about whether the soul (if we have a soul!) survives bodily death.
  • The value of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ – is the vagueness of terms like the soul part of their value? Is there something about trying to define them too precisely that misses this point? Does that feel right and appropriate, or still somehow evasive?
  • What can we learn from ‘soul splitting’ in Harry Potter?
  • Body and soul: “duality does not entail dualism.”
  • When we remember a person, are we really remembering their soul? A question from John Field FRSA that wasn’t answered; is this a good way to grasp what the soul is?

If thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.

Lessons Learned

  • Iain has earned a deserved reputation as a thoughtful polymath with a sound grasp of sciences and humanities, but occasionally I feel he over-reacts to the fear of being thought to be a reductionist. His resolute ‘no’ in response to my question of whether science could ever help us make sense of the nature of the soul struck me as an overstatement.
  • We didn’t quite establish the connection between belief in/acceptance of the soul and belief in/acceptance of ‘God’, and it would have been good to probe that important if obvious question a little further. Clearly Iain’s account of the soul is no ghost in the machine, but is there any sense in which a more dispositional perspective on the individual soul is isomorphic with respect to a universal soul?
  • In response to the classical musical clip from the 16th century, one guest later told me that while it was assumed we were all touched, move and inspired, he personally didn’t feel it moved his ‘soul’ particularly, and wondered whether there was a presumption of cultural identification with meaning that was misplaced for those who don’t share the cultural tradition (he’s a highly intelligent Australian).
  • Iain’s education and disposition makes his thought hyper-nuanced, but it can feel like the boundary between nuance and obscurity requires a third-party arbiter at times! Personally, I am never quite sure when it feels appropriate to press for further clarity. Perhaps this desire is what Iain would call ‘left hemisphere overreach’ – asking for too much precision- but there is something Protean about Iain’s thought that I, as one of his biggest fans, sometimes find frustrating.
  • With hindsight, I should have tried harder to focus on the issue of ‘What happened to the soul?’ rather than what became the focus: ‘what is the soul?’ The questions are closely connected, but the result was that we heard from Iain the philosopher and I could perhaps have done more to draw out the Scientist; it felt to me, perhaps wrongly, like having the two together would give the fullest picture of the soul.
  • Relatedly, I am very familiar with Iain’s bestseller ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which connects an analysis of neural anatomy and function to a theory of cultural history, but I should perhaps have taken more care to share some of the main ideas with the audience, which we examined closely for an RSA report last year: Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard. These ideas were implicit in much of the discussion, but a little unpacking of them might have helped to sharpen the key issues at stake.

In any case, I am pleased we have managed to draw attention to the cultural neglect of ‘the soul’, and I left feeling very glad we had hosted the event. Iain and the audience significantly moved along our thinking and opened up areas for further inquiry, not least on mental health.

On the other hand, and this is a positive point, there is something about these spirituality events that always leave me wanting more, as if the life changing revelation you naively hoped for is forever postponed until next time.

 

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, and tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.

We are currently considering ideas and speakers for our 4th and 5th (of 6) public events in this series, so do get in touch if you have any suggestions on questions or speakers.

 

 

 

 

Event on Monday: What happened to ‘the soul’?

March 26, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Hang on, didn’t we used to have souls?

I grew up thinking there were clear dividing lines between mind, body and soul, and I was happy to have all three of them. Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like, imperceptibly over the eighties, nineties and naughties, the soul was secularised away.

Around this time I sensed that even the mind started giving away to the brain, which in turn collapses into a broader notion of our material body and nervous system, which then gives way to genes…and it doesn’t even end there…Perhaps the reason I came to be in my current role is that I acquired such a strong felt sense that our common sense notion of what makes us human beings is completely at odds with the scientific account, and my interest in spirituality may be because the front line of this battle for the integrity of our understanding and experience is our idea of the soul.

(Image from RSAnimate of Ian McGilchrist’s first RSA lecture)

Personally, I feel like I haven’t heard about ‘the soul’ in public life for years. It’s as if this fundamental part of us was gradually theorised out of existence, and we collectively and unwittingly ‘forgot’ about something that used to be fundamental to our understanding of what it is to be human.

‘The death of the soul’ is part of the process of secularisation (a complex notion though that is) and the conventional wisdom among most scientists and analytic philosophers is that the soul is a mostly religious and pre-modern folksy notion that makes no sense with respect to modern understandings of our evolved bodies and brains. If you don’t move in those kinds of intellectual orbits though, this news – the death of the soul- might come as a bit of a shock!

Moreover, for many, including our prior speaker in this series, Guy Claxton, soul-like phenomena relating to meaning and transcendence can be explained without ‘the soul’. Indeed, Guy would probably say the loss of ‘the soul’ did no real harm to our souls. Others would go further, and say moving beyond quaint metaphysical notions of the soul liberates us, and allows us to be more authentically soulful.

Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

But is that right? Even if we don’t adhere to a religious or even philosophical (technically ‘ontological’) account of individual souls, surely it’s not so easy just to discard the notion, and everything caught up with the soul without some loss of perspective. Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

And perhaps the soul is still very much alive. It remains meaningful to speak of ‘Schools with Soul’ for instance, to love soul music, and most of us know people or places that feel ‘soulful’. Moreover some, including many psychotherapists, would go further and say that many mental health challenges relate to the neglect of ‘the soul’ at a societal level.

Personally, that makes sense to me. As I recently argued, I think our obsession with our ‘place’ in the world leads us to neglect our more fundamental ‘ground’, and that this neglect may prevent us from living our lives at their generous best.

It is therefore exciting to report that on Monday the celebrated author of the brilliant and extraordinary book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, polymath, psychiatrist and RSA fellow Iain McGilchrist will speak directly to these fundamental matters in his talk What Happened to the Soul? as part our series of events exploring the nature and value of spirituality in light of modern understandings of human nature.

Iain seems the perfect person to interrogate this question, in light of his background in sciences and humanities. He understands why ‘the soul’ cannot be what we used to think it was, but also why we may need it nonetheless.

I don’t want to steal Iain’s thunder, but from a brief call with him earlier today it sounds like the content of the talk will be very rich indeed. We might learn what it means to think of the soul not as ‘a thing’ but as a process or disposition; why it makes sense to say we can grow or extinguish souls, how individual souls relate to collective souls, and personally I was pleased to hear that Carl Jung might even get a mention or two.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we have paid close attention to Iain’s work before, but for those who want a quicker hit, here is a video of an RSAnimate of Iain’s last talk at the RSA, which is rapidly approaching a million and a half views.

The event is sold out, but will be live streamed. If you want to know more about your soul(!) you can tune in live and ask questions via #RSASpirituality.

The Inner Power to Create

March 24, 2014 by · 21 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

- Mahatma Gandhi

I started writing this post a few moments after returning from a ‘Satsang’ at the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney. These free gatherings take place five minutes from my home and follow a familiar routine of four roughly half hour chunks; meditating (mostly concentration), chanting (mostly Kirtan), listening to a lecture(mostly free-flowing responses to an idea in one of the texts by the movement’s two founders) and sharing a meal(always vegetarian, usually lentils).

I go there for a spiritual ‘hit’, a change of scene, and a sense of community that is not mediated by social status. The setting is not without religious (mostly Hindu/Vedantic) signifiers, but they feel mythological and ritualistic rather than propositional, in that they are about the experience of symbolic meaning rather than the textual description of reality. The whole process leaves me feeling energised and renewed, but without that gnawing sense of intellectual compromise that haunts me in churches.

Tonight I was struck by something the Swami (teacher) said in her talk that got me thinking about the RSA’s emerging worldview, currently called ‘The Power to Create’. The Swami didn’t use the Gandhi quote above I was familiar with. Instead she spoke about the importance of retaining coherence between what we think, say and do, not so much for happiness, but for confidence, which may be a prerequisite for it.

If we think things are one way, but say otherwise; or if we say things should be so, but don’t act accordingly, it’s not just corrosive to wellbeing, it undermines our sense of agency.

When I strongly disagree but say I mostly agree, or when I say I want to lose weight but reach for the third piece of chocolate cake, my sense of self-efficacy is eroded. When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

This was a timely thought. I have been trying to figure out what it is about the RSA’s emerging world view that leaves me feeling a little uneasy. I knew it was something about its value neutrality and lack of emphasis on our inner lives, but I couldn’t quite place it, and now I have a clearer idea.

The Power to Create has a kaleidoscopic core, but on my current understanding it tends to pivot around the following five interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of ‘small is beautiful’: The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.

It sounds a lot better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as they say, but at present what’s missing is a theory of how changes in our inner lives correspond with the changes in the external world.

The heart of the power to create vision, it seems to me, is a reconceptualisation of agency that is currently described in the third person (‘it’ language) but it will need to find form in first (‘I’ language) and second (‘You’ or ‘we’) person expression. It’s not enough for ‘people’ to turn their ideas into reality, but particular ‘I’s, ‘we’s, and ‘you’s need to consistently live in ways that retain coherence between thought, word and deed.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more than people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually work for visions of their better selves, and for the greater good of others too. 

That may be possible, and worth striving for, but is it likely? I think it comes down to how optimistic you are about human beings. I generally take the Gramscian view that pessimism of the intellect is reasonable, but optimism of the will is essential, so it’s just not enough to believe willpower or positive thinking will get us through.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually strive for visions of their better more integrated selves, and for the greater good of others too. We can’t just take that kind of personal growth for granted as an article of faith.

What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them and lives for that very purpose? 

I think the ‘power to create’ vision would become much more powerful if it could answer the following question: What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them, and lives for that very purpose?

We know that kind of shift takes deep and resilient self confidence but we also know such confidence is fragile. As I have argued before as part of our work on the social relevance of spirituality, any theory of social transformation needs a commensurately robust account of personal transformation to go with it.

We need to give more thought to our inner power to create.

 

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

Science and Spirituality: ‘Effing the Ineffable’

February 10, 2014 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

What is glimpsed is a world in which there is greater trust and less worry; in which mystery or uncertainty do not need to constantly explained and understood, but can simply be met as they appear….

- Professor Guy Claxton (illustration by Dwyllis Maggs)

 

Introduction by Jonathan Rowson

After many requests, it is a great pleasure to be able to share the transcript of Guy Claxton’s public lecture at the RSA in November. The talk developed an account of the connection between embodied cognition and spiritual experience to a packed Great Room, but was so rich in content and expression that many who attended or listened online were eager to see the text.

Guy was my PhD supervisor and we are now friends, so I am by no means impartial, but I have chaired many RSA events before and this was the first time I felt speechless at the end of a talk. The content below reveals Guy’s very personal, informed and evolved take on the fundamental question of what it is to be human. Guy is a Cognitive Scientist, best known for his pioneering work on Building Learning Power, but he has also described himself as ‘a Buddhist in remission’ and he calls upon his spiritual hinterland in what follows.

The ideas and positions developed manage to be grounded, evocative, and strikingly non-partisan in spirit. Hardened atheists may regret the lack of a scientistic debunking of the spiritual, while those yearning for details of what may lie ‘beyond’ materialism may also feel frustrated by an unwillingness to venture out in that direction.

Guy gave generously of his knowledge and insight, but he steadfastly refused to be drawn on more speculative or divisive questions. In this sense the event was a perfect contribution to the work we are developing in this area, showing the value of going ‘beyond belief’, with a deeper inquiry into human nature and experience. I believe Guy succeeded in explaining spiritual experience without explaining it away.

This was the second lecture in our series of six public events on the how new conceptions of human nature may inform our appreciation for the nature and value of spirituality. These public events are part of a 20 month project called Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain, which includes a broader programme of research, culminating in a final report scheduled for September 2014. The next scheduled public event in the series is Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of the critically acclaimed ‘The Master and his Emissary’ on March 31 who will talking on the subject: “What happened to the soul?”.

The reaction to Guy’s talk was extremely positive. The RSA Replay was viewed over 8,000 times, and the edited video has already received almost another 8,000. However, some of the best ideas and exchanges were in the questions and answers, so after reading below, I would encourage you to listen to the full audio recording too. In the transcript below I have only edited out references to slides and made minor amends for comprehension where necessary. Enjoy!

On Being Touched and Moved: Why Spirituality is Essentially Embodied (Professor Guy Claxton, RSA, Nov 26th 2013)

Thank you.

What I want to say about embodiment is part of a broader picture of spirituality, which I do not have time to justify here. But to make sense, I do have to state its main contentions rather baldly.

Spirituality and religion originate in a particular kind of felt experience. These experiences are typically short-lived, surprising and uncontrollable, but they seem, to the person having them, to be highly significant and attractive.

THE BACK-STORY

Spirituality and religion originate in a particular kind of felt experience. These experiences are typically short-lived, surprising and uncontrollable, but they seem, to the person having them, to be highly significant and attractive. They go by a variety of names – kensho, satori, the Grace of God, sometimes mystical experience or a peak experience – though they often have no florid elements such as visions or premonitions. I shall call these experienced Glimpses (with a capital G).

Spiritual practice is the attempt to recapture or stabilise such Glimpses: to make them home ground rather than holiday accommodation. Religions are originally codified and organised sets of such spiritual practices. They often develop around an individual who seems to have cracked this quest for stabilisation – a Jesus, a Muhammad, a Siddhartha Gautama. Their fleeting Glimpse has been held steady. Such people offer Promise – if I did it, so can you – and a Path – follow in my footsteps.

But the path has many Potholes and Pitfalls, most of which I am going to pass over this evening. But I must mention one. One of the apparent consolations of religion is an escape from death. People’s anxieties about death are attributed to a physical body that will inevitably let them down, and they are encouraged to find solace in a world of abstract but indestructible forces and entities such as the Immortal Soul, Almighty God or Reincarnation. Mind and Pure Thought are Good and Higher; Body and Emotion are traitorous and Lower. So mind and body are split and set at odds with each other. I want to suggest that these Glimpses involve an apparently miraculous healing of that split; but that the miracle can be explained by biology.

First, I want to concentrate on what the Glimpses are. Let me set the scene with a short poem by WB Yeats called Vacillation, which many of you, I am sure, will know. It beautifully captures several of the recurrent features of a Glimpse. (Imagine Yeats – or yourself – at a window table in Starbucks on the Strand, perhaps.)

My fiftieth year had come and gone

I sat, a solitary man

In a crowded London shop

An open book, an empty cup

On the marble table-top

 

While on the shop and street I gazed

My body of a sudden blazed

And, twenty minutes, more or less

It seemed, so great my happiness

That I was blessed, and could bless

 

Glimpses

There is a database of thousands of ‘glimpses’ gathered over the years by the Alistair Hardy Religious Experiences Research Centre, now based at the University of Wales in Lampeter. I have highlighted some of the commonly occurring elements (see video). Let me read you a slightly longer extract from one of those reports. It is also set in London, this time on a commuter train.

“Vauxhall station on a murky November Tuesday evening is not the setting one would choose for a revelation of God…The carriage was full. I cannot remember any particular thought processes which may have led up to the great moment… For a few seconds only (I suppose) the whole carriage was filled with light… I felt caught up in a tremendous sense of being within a loving, shining purpose… In a few moments the glory had faded – all but one curious lingering feeling. I loved everyone in the seats around me. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of those people. I seemed to sense the golden worth in them all.”

As you will see, people reach for a variety of metaphors and images as they attempts to describe their Glimpses. But it is possible to discern a common core of qualities that many of these experiences share. (I’m going to ignore for the moment the variety of visions and premonitions that sometimes –but by no means always – accompany the Glimpses. I think a good case can be made that such dramatic, eye-catching aspects of the experience are accoutrements rather than of the essence, but I don’t have time to pursue that here…)

ASPECTS OF THE EXPERIENCE

Glimpses are surprisingly common – in surveys up to 50-60% of people admit to some such experience, and they are frequent in teenagers too. Such experiences tend to be under-reported, however, partly because they are seen as highly personal and private, partly because they are hard to talk about, and partly for fear of being thought ‘odd’. They are usually fleeting and elusive – Yeats’ 20 minutes (more or less) is common, though some come and go in a few seconds, and a few are more lasting, such as that of the British scientist John Wren-Lewis. And they vary in their intensity, some being pleasant but not momentous, while others seem to strike at the very foundations of our normal ways of perceiving and feeling.

Despite their evanescence, glimpses are regularly felt not to be illusions but concrete reality unmasked: things unusually accurately and intensely perceived.

Glimpses seem infuriatingly elusive – they appear out of the blue and disappear again of their own accord, and cannot be held on to deliberately. Indeed, the deliberate attempt to control them seems to make them slip away all the more. Nevertheless, despite their evanescence, they are regularly felt not to be illusions but concrete reality unmasked: things unusually accurately and intensely perceived. And, as I have already noted, they also seem frustratingly hard to capture in words. As the English philosopher Alan Watts put it, the aftermath of a Glimpse may require an effort to speak the unspeakable, scrute the inscrutable – and eff the ineffable.

Despite this difficulty, there do seem to be a number of common characteristics of a Glimpse that can be described relatively easily. First, there is the physical burst of vitality and aliveness, often described as brightness, energy and warmth. In the yogic traditions, this release of pent-up vitality is referred to as kundalini, and is often sought through deliberately targeted exercises. In the language of cognitive science, we would describe it as an abrupt intensification of perception, both in the so-called special senses that detect different kinds of energy from the external environment, and also in interoception – the awareness of the internal state of the body itself. Normal experience seems muted and attenuated by comparison

Secondly, there is a felt shift from separation to connectedness; from being an individual, somewhat isolated observer, looking for connectedness, to being essentially and intimately connected. The Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast describes this as a spontaneous shift from Longing to Belonging. The English mystic Douglas Harding used to describe human beings as ‘built open’, but often suffering from an illusory sense of closedness and self-containment. Normal life seems rather lonely by comparison

The flip-side of belonging is care. One of the most attractive facets of a glimpse seems to be the liberation of affection. Instead of being too busy to care, you notice what needs doing to look after the people and the environment around us, and naturally do it. It’s as if we no longer waste time trying to decide who is worthy of our affection, by virtue of their familiarity to us, or being morally deserving, but, like the man on the train, simply because one sees ‘the golden worth’ in everyone. Normal life seems, rather sheepishly, to be self-centred and ungenerous by comparison.

As the English philosopher Alan Watts put it, the aftermath of a Glimpse may require an effort to speak the unspeakable, scrute the inscrutable – and eff the ineffable.

Then there is a feeling of ease, as a complex weight of considerations and concerns seems to drop away, and life appears radically simplified. Rabindranath Tagore said “It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple”. A Glimpse seems to reveal the truth of that in direct experience. What is glimpsed is a world in which there is greater trust and less worry; in which mystery or uncertainty do not need to constantly explained and understood, but can simply be met as they appear. Normal life seems stymied by second thoughts and conflicts of interest by comparison.

So I suggest that spirituality and religion start not from a system of belief that offers comfort and meaning, but from a first-hand glimpse of a different way of relating to the vicissitudes of life. And this shows up not as a thought, a wish or an interpretation, but as a direct experience. It is seen and felt, not construed or imagined. It is embodied.

 So I suggest that spirituality and religion start not from a system of belief that offers comfort and meaning, but from a first-hand glimpse of a different way of relating to the vicissitudes of life. And this shows up not as a thought, a wish or an interpretation, but as a direct experience. It is seen and felt, not construed or imagined. It is embodied. 

SCIENCE

Can science add anything to our understanding of what these Glimpses are, where they come from, what their validity might be, and how they could be earned or encouraged? I think physics was a false dawn in this respect. I bought The Tao of Physics – but I never really bought it. The idea that the key to happiness lay hidden in quantum uncertainty and microtubules seemed as unlikely and unhelpful as the idea that the Archangel Gabriel might swoop down in a burning chariot and carry me off to Paradise.

But now I think the scientists of embodiment are on to something. Here’s a few of the pioneers: Andy Clark, Francisco Varela, Susan Hurley, Jeffrey Gray, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. Actually I have added one physicist – David Bohm – because he was really more of a psychologist. Let me try to give you a few illustrations of what they have been up to, and how this body of work is beginning to illuminate those elusive Glimpses. To do so in the time, I am going to have to ignore many of the technicalities, and make use of a variety of metaphors myself.

PEOPLE AS SYSTEMS

At the most general level, there is the deepening understanding of human beings as biological systems – technically, Complex Adaptive Dynamic Systems. Biologically, we are more like clouds or whirlpools or waves than snooker balls. We see ourselves as mid-level entities, operating in time-scales from seconds to years and sizes from millimetres to kilometres. But if we only stay at that level of description we miss important things about ourselves. Like the cloud or the whirlpool, we only have the appearance of semi-stability because we are in constant interaction with wider systems that keep, quite literally, ‘whipping us into shape’. Bodies and minds are semi-stable forms that are composed of constantly changing and constantly interacting stuff. Try to take the whirlpool home in a bucket and you will be disappointed. Waves don’t carry the same water forward; they are born, so to speak, have a life, travel, interact, and die, because they are constantly being whipped into shape by a complicated dynamic interaction between wider groundswells, currents, wind-forces, the phase of moon, the rotation of the earth and the wake of a tanker that passed half-an-hour ago…

Conscious mind, we might say, is a kind of phosphorescence that can appear to crest each wave, if further conditions are fulfilled. Consciousness is spume or spindrift. If I were to really see myself in this light, as a temporary form created out of wind and ocean and moon – not just to entertain the idea, but to know that that is what I am – things would look very different (especially the inevitability of death). Astonishingly, right here and now, the World is Guy Claxtoning in a particular (and, it has to be said, rather peculiar) way. This talk should actually be billed as ‘by The World, temporarily masquerading as Guy Claxton’.

The body is what connects us to these wider forces – a dynamic pattern of sensibilities and concerns that are in constant resonance with the larger systems within which it is implicated. Physicist David Bohm referred to this wider swirl of energy and information as the implicate order, which explicates itself from time to time as a Guy or a Jonathan. Disconnect me from this incessant flow of perturbations and resources and, like the whirlpool in the bucket, both body and mind will immediately begin to disintegrate.

Disconnect me from this incessant flow of perturbations and resources and, like the whirlpool in the bucket, both body and mind will immediately begin to disintegrate.

The body is much more sensitive to this myriad of shifting influences that the conscious mind. Under controlled conditions I can flash you those eyes so quickly you are not aware you have seen anything – but within 50 milliseconds your amygdalae are fired up and your body is already sending bursts of adrenaline to muscles and heart, and parasympathetic impulses to your gut to dampen the ongoing processes of digestion. You may or may not be aware of these repercussions, but you won’t know where that blip of threat came from.

PUPILS

We are especially built to reverberate to the social world. Digitally enlarge the size of the pupils slightly in a photograph, and I will describe the person and warmer and more attractive – and I won’t know why. Mirror my body language in a subtle way and, again without knowing why, I will trust you more. Show me a clip of a friend in pain and my brain will automatically squirm in sympathy. Through the body I am deeply ecological, profoundly and ceaselessly in conversation with the physical and the social milieu in which I am embedded (and from which I am continually emerging). Like the wave, I am made up – concocted – by the world around me. Like a mobile phone, I may look like a lump of stuff, but I am actually aquiver with information – whether I am currently checking myself for messages or not. So says the science of embodiment.

Through the body I am deeply ecological, profoundly and ceaselessly in conversation with the physical and the social milieu in which I am embedded (and from which I am continually emerging).

KANIZSA TRIANGLE

The view that consciousness gets is a very partial, and in some ways inaccurate, reflection of all the activity that is going on ‘below stairs’. In this familiar figure, the Kanizsa triangle, there is no white triangle, lying on top of the black figures, slightly brighter and slightly in front.  What consciousness sees is not what’s there, but a useful, plausible guess about what’s probably there – which in this case is wrong. Out of the swirl, the body-brain constructs a semi-stable image, our ‘World’, which isn’t an accurate representation of ‘what’s out there’, but a tissue of useful but fallible predictions about how things would change if I did various things like moved my eyeballs, or reached out my hand, or smiled. We actually see the world in terms not of what it is, so much, as what I expect to be able to do about it. If my concerns or priorities change, so does the world. Hills look steeper to tired people. Coins look bigger to hungry children.

We actually see the world in terms not of what it is, so much, as what I expect to be able to do about it. If my concerns or priorities change, so does the world. Hills look steeper to tired people. Coins look bigger to hungry children.

INTEROCEPTION

My current state of bodily needs, resources and capabilities is constantly being relayed to the brain where it infuses all of the central or ‘higher-level’ processing. As the work of Antonio Damasio shows, we know our values first by getting a visceral sense of Right and Wrong: a feeling of ‘better to go this way’, and ‘doesn’t feel good to go that way’. People’s sensitivity to these bodily promptings – their ability to hear and to heed their intuitions – predicts how well they make value-laden decisions.  “By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes” turns out, sometimes at least, to be a valid form of cognition.

Even the understanding of abstract language is underpinned by the body and its capacities. When I read ‘Guy gave a lecture’, my brain’s motor system is instantly and irresistibly primed to move my hand outwards from my body. If I have to respond by moving my hands inwards, to hit the appropriate response button, the motor system gets conflicting messages and the response is slowed down. If I had read ‘Jonathan took Guy’s point’, the reverse would have happened. Abstract thinking never loses its roots in the bodily bedrock of sensing, acting and feeling.

The idea that Cognition and Emotion, Mind and Body, come from different realms, and are constantly at odds with each other, doesn’t hold. When I ‘get’ a joke, comprehension and feeling are locked together. Merely understanding it is quite a different thing. When I am touched by Billy Eliot’s Dad’s change of heart, and his decision to risk his social position to support Billy’s dream to be a dancer, my appreciation does not just happen in my head; it happens in my chest and throat and eyes as well.

Abstract thinking never loses its roots in the bodily bedrock of sensing, acting and feeling.

JAPANESE ART

When I gaze at a picture in a gallery, I am not thinking much, but my whole being is reverberating with a deep kind of knowing. As Suzuki says, the experience is aesthetic precisely because it is not clearly explicated.

In these kinds of experience, our reactions are not considered. They well up from deep inside us. Sometimes they catch us by surprise, and often remain unexplicated. But are they rare moments of embodiment? Or are we always like that, but just not noticing it? David McNeill, a venerable psycholinguist at the University of Chicago, suggests that all our actions, utterances and thoughts well up inside us, starting from a deeply visceral seed of meaning or intention. Like a bubble released from the bottom of a pond, or a baby gestating in the womb, the intention gradually grows in size and complexity till it breaks the surface, so to speak, as a well-formed action or thought. Or, most commonly as some combination of thought, action and feeling. We gesture as we speak because gesture and utterance started from the same seed, but took different branches along the way, and carry different facets of the original intention. Our default way of knowing is simultaneously linguistic, affective and enactive. It takes effort and sophistication to decouple them, and to imagine ourselves to be, whether ideally or in fact, calm, rational beings.

So perhaps it is all welling up –but we don’t notice it. The process of welling can be too fast to catch, so it looks like the thought has sprung fully-formed into our minds – indeed, was actually produced by our minds. And maybe we have become neglectful: we simply fail to notice the less-clear precursors of our thoughts and deeds. Instead of sensing the real origin in the dark recesses of the body, we invent a more proximal cause called ‘Will’ or ‘Volition’ or simply ‘I’.

Our default way of knowing is simultaneously linguistic, affective and enactive. It takes effort and sophistication to decouple them, and to imagine ourselves to be, whether ideally or in fact, calm, rational beings.

Perhaps that is what people see and feel in a Glimpse: they feel that reintegration and un-pent-up-ness. They feel the fertilised egg of thought embedded in the immune system and the digestive system and in smooth and striate muscle. Maybe what Julian of Norwich really said was “All shall well, and all shall well, and all manner of thing shall just well up”.  Perhaps the very idea of well-being is inherent in those Glimpses. (Though playing with the multiple meanings of the word Well reminds me unfortunately of a Peter Cook sketch in which he explained that his wife was not a well woman…she hated being lowered down the well every morning.)

If embodied cognition is right, we are capable of badly misconstruing ourselves. We commonly see ourselves in a distorting mirror that minimises the importance of our bodies, and the ecological connections that extend therefrom, and exaggerates the importance of the bubbles of conscious thought. A lot of trouble and anxiety is created by that distorted image. Mere inconveniences get blown up into matters of life-and-death, for example.  But that false reflection does not affect the actual workings of the Body-Brain-World System that I actually am. I always carry on being as ecologically connected, and unconsciously influenced, as I always was.

EINSTEIN

And occasionally, if I am lucky, I get a Glimpse of biological Buddha Nature, or the Godhead. I see behind the mirror – and, for a few minutes, all the habitual weightings in my neural networks get re-set. In this new light, I find that much of what I had been treating as disastrous turns out to be humorous. The lonely bubble is instantly transmuted into a reverberating network of connections. And a vast, conscripted army of neural censors and sentries – the massive, continual deployment of frontal-lobe inhibition that I had thought necessary, to keep me out of trouble – is suddenly redundant. Those neural sentries strip off their uniforms and start to party! No wonder the world look brighter, and the interoceptive system suddenly pumps up the volume. Of course the world looks luminous and the body blazes with warmth and energy. Where else is all that pent-up neural activation going to go?

Now it’s time to stop welling, and pipe down- and let someone else have a chance to well more exuberantly.

Thank you.

Older Posts »