Beyond the Bunnies – Why Easter is for Grown Ups

April 17, 2014 by · 2 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.

But these ideas at the heart of Easter are for grown ups. They are deep, dark, and difficult, and they make most sense to those who have been round the block enough to deeply know pain and the recovery from pain, and recognise this recurring pattern in our lives and the lives of others. The meaning of the Christmas story is relatively straightforward by comparison, and an easier one for children to grasp. So a warning: if you are expecting sweetness and light manifest as chocolate eggs or bunny rabbits, look away now.

At first blush the story makes no sense. The ‘son of God’(who?) dies in excruciatingly sadistic and vinegary pain while nailed to a wooden cross by the terrestrial baddies du jour to ‘save us from our sins’ (how?) and this singularly important(why?) celestial person(what?) is entombed in a stone cave. Just then, when this apparently appalling thing that remains confounding on a number of levels has happened, he miraculously comes back to life, removes the stone that kept him entombed, and is back amongst us; his resurrection proof that he really is the son of God (yes, that again…) and that, therefore, somehow, all is well.

Like most of the people reading this post, I am culturally Christian. I’ve heard versions of this story hundreds of times before and have never really developed a position on whether it ‘actually happened’ or felt that I needed to. Some Christians might say that’s a cop out, because if it did happen, it was this particular historical event, and not ‘the enlightenment’ that was, as Professor Tom Wright puts it ‘The greatest turning point in history’.

For now though, to be consistent with most of our other work on spirituality, I’m going to try to ‘keep the tension’ (as chess players put it) on the fundamental but also fundamentally contested questions of literal, historical truth, and focus on core themes from the story that have broader human application:

Pain and suffering

Some misunderstand Buddhism as a religion that is ‘all about suffering’, which is not true, but some misunderstand Christianity as a religion that is all about being nice and good, and that’s not true either. The heart of the Christian story is overflowing with stark realism and is very dark indeed. It’s about a moment where people are bereft of hope.

Nietzsche one wrote: “There was only one Christian, and they killed him.” That’s another story, another argument, but it captures the darkness and bleakness of the moment Jesus is killed very well. This touchstone of light is not only effectively tortured and humiliated, but through his death it appears that all light and all hope is well and truly snuffed out.

Easter therefore says: a life fully lived will feature suffering, not just a little bit, and it won’t always make sense at the time. There will be moments where you feel utterly forsaken, and that is not imaginary. But it is not the whole story either.

Love and Justice Reconciled

Whether or not you ‘believe’ in God (or know what it means not to) you will know that the Christian conception of God is one who is both loving and just, and that’s not an easy trick for anybody (yes, even God) to pull off. The Easter story is arguably about the possibility of squaring this circle. God didn’t just allow the baddies to ‘get away with it’; he allowed it to happen because he saw further and deeper.

Denial

Some say the heart of the story is about our terrifying capacity to turn away from what we need to look at. We would rather crucify the truth than recognise it as the truth. Our work on ‘stealth denial’ on climate change was not inspired by Jesus(!) but it was an attempt to capture this sentiment – the truth is often deeply uncomfortable and we will go to great lengths to get away from it. If there was a way we could ‘kill’ climate change, rather than deal with it, we probably would.

‘Eucatastrophes’

Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ as an antonym for catastrophe, because he wanted to highlight the reality of those moments where all seems lost, but suddenly and miraculously, the ring of power finds its way into the fires of mount doom; the seemingly dead come back to life; the incurable cancer inexplicably disappears.

Paradox

Easter is about holding on to the paradox that, as Mark Vernon put it to me: ”When all seems lost – really, truly, bleakly – all is found…”

Incarnation and Embodiement

The quietly brilliant Chris Oldfield put it to me that Easter, like Christmas, is a celebration of embodiment over elegant abstraction and virtual reality. It’s about “The scandal of Incarnation overcoming excarnation (as Charles Taylor might put it).” This point, has interesting resonances with Guy Claxton’s lecture at the RSA in our spirituality series. There is no spirituality, however you define it, without the body.

Gender 

A curious detail of the story, again indicated by Chris, is that it is female disciples who are the witnesses to the empty tomb. The male disciples basically don’t believe them “because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24). There is apparently a lot of Biblical scholarship on this issue, connecting the male response to this important but discomforting news to modern day unhelpful stereotypes about ‘hysterical women’.

The Self

You can see Easter as being about emptying yourself to be filled with something more than ego; to die to your false self to connect with your truer deeper self. For those who can’t follow the story back to Christian belief and practice, this idea alone is an important one. Psychologically and existentially, we often need to lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Second Chances

A relatively conventional but important interpretation, is that the Christian God is fundamentally about second chances. New life can come even to the completely lost or bereft, and sometimes more than once.

Taking a Stand

For all that I said about not debating the literal truth, it is worth ending with a powerful quote (HT Chris Oldfield) that says, actually, whether we are culturally or religiously Christian, we do need to decide what we feel about ‘the truth’ of the resurrection:

From Tom Wright on: ‘Grave matters’; why the resurrection is not a ‘take it or leave it thing’:

“Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity is a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world which looks to Marx, Freud & Nietzsche for its prophets, with the Easter news that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

I’m not sure what I think about that, but I mean it when I say:

Happy Easter!

 

 

Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul?

April 1, 2014 by · 1 Comment
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 · 12 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 · 7 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.

The Spiritual and the Political: Beyond Russell Brand

January 26, 2014 by · 29 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

For me, the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political.

–Russell Brand

 

About three months after Russell Brand’s iconoclastic call for a ‘revolution in consciousness’ on Newsnight (c10 million views on Youtube) and in New Statesman (103,000 Facebook ‘likes’) the dust has settled, and, well, nothing much has happened.

That’s a real pity.

Perhaps Brand’s fame, his main asset, proved to be a liability, in the sense that the messenger subsumed the message. That big story of October 2013 proved to be more about who Brand is(former drug addict, now celebrity, with challenging political views) how he got the better of Paxman, and what he did(edited New Statesman) than the content of what he was saying.

The minor tragedy is that beyond Brand’s sizzling ego, zealous eloquence and sharp eyebrows lies a coherent argument that we need to take deadly seriously. 

The minor tragedy is that beyond Brand’s sizzling ego, zealous eloquence and sharp eyebrows lies a coherent argument that we need to take deadly seriously. He is absolutely right to say that we need a deeper appreciation for who we think we are and why we think we are here before we can face up to the inadequacy of our existing social, political and financial institutions. Only then might we build the requisite will and insight needed to create a better world.

(In case you still have no appetite for the message due to the messenger, one of the world’s most respected Philosophers, Robert Unger, has a view of political change that, while several orders of magnitude more complex, is similar in its insistence on starting from a more spiritual account of human aspiration: “The commanding objective must be the achievement of a larger life for the ordinary man and woman”).

However, while Brand’s call to spiritual arms spoke to millions, it did not convince everybody. The message sounded fresh, but on examination it appeared half-baked because there was no clarity about the nature of the meaning of ‘spiritual’ or the link between the spiritual and the political, nor what it would mean to develop it in practice (in his own defence, he said he was busy that week being a magazine editor…).

And his suggestion that a corollary of his view is that we shouldn’t vote sounded overblown, because as anybody who takes spiritual progress seriously knows, a shift in consciousness may place your work in perspective, but it never does the work for you. To paraphrase an old Zen saying: before enlightenment – use your vote, after enlightenment – use your vote.

But his intervention was timely and profoundly important and we shouldn’t lose sight of it.

Modern political debates have become too tactical and technocratic to inspire political hope, and the idea that politics has lost touch with deeper foundations of human nature and aspiration not only rings true, but chimes with the RSA’s emerging worldview. As Adam Lent suggests, we have lost faith in conventional politics, and as Matthew Taylor argues, it is questionable whether better policymaking will ever change that.

Curiously, at least for those who believe in Zeitgeists, Brand’s public statements came out a few days after the first of six public events on taking spirituality seriously. I gave a short speech there, which I developed further and published in New Humanist in December. The editor Daniel Trilling kindly allowed me to repost that piece (some of which is lightly edited above, and some of which is lightly edited below).

If Russell Brand were ever to ask me for advice on how to flesh out the idea that the spiritual is primary and the political is secondary, here is the material I would draw upon to help him advance the case (Warning, c3000 words ahead).

To paraphrase an old Zen saying: before enlightenment – use your vote, after enlightenment – use your vote.

Taking Spirituality Seriously:

The capacious term ‘spirituality’ lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation.

There is little doubt that spirituality can be interesting, but what needs to be made clearer by those who take that for granted is why it is also important. To be a fertile idea for those with terrestrial power or for those who seek it, we need a way of speaking of the spiritual that is intellectually robust and politically relevant.

This goal looks achievable when you realise that Spirituality is not centrally about ‘beliefs’. The conventional notion that to believe something means endorsing a statement of fact about how things are is an outdated and unhelpful Cartesian relic, grounded in a misunderstanding of how our ideas and actions interact.

Consider the story of two rabbis debating the existence of God through a long night and jointly reaching the conclusion that he or she did not exist. The next morning, one observed the other deep in prayer and took him to task. “What are you doing? Last night we established that God does not exist.” To which the other rabbi replied, “What’s that got to do with it?”

The capacious term ‘spirituality’ lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation.

The praying non-believer illustrates that belief may be much closer to what sociologist William Morgan described as “a shared imaginary, a communal set of practices that structure life in powerfully aesthetic terms”. This perspective chimes with the emerging 21st century view of human nature as fundamentally embodied, constituted by evolutionary biology, embedded in complex online and offline networks, largely habitual, highly sensitive to social and cultural norms, riddled with cognitive quirks and biases, and much more rationalising than rational. This perspective helps to move beyond simplistic accounts of ‘belief’ and sheds light on the three main perspectives on spirituality in the UK today.

Three forms of spirituality

First, there is religious spirituality, in which religions can be understood as the cultural and institutional expression of the spiritual. This association explains why those who feel antipathy towards religion are wary of bringing spirituality into the public realm. As the Humanist Anthropologist Matthew Engelke put it at a recent RSA workshop on the idea of ‘spiritual commitment’: “the word spiritual has a history, and that history has a politics.”

Second, there is the ‘spiritual but not religious’ category, an expression that does little to illuminate the nature of the spiritual beyond the disassociation with religion. ‘SBNR’ is now a bizarrely demographic box to tick that serves mainly to carve out a space on the census form for amorphous worldviews. Indeed, this large and heterogeneous group does not have anything resembling ‘class consciousness’, nor culturally recognised institutional forms.

One of the reasons we tend not to take spirituality seriously is that people in this category get attacked ‘from both sides’; from atheists for their perceived irrationality and wishful thinking, and from organised religion for their rootless self-indulgence and lack of commitment. However, while survey findings on such matters have be treated with considerable caution, this broad categorisation arguably captures the majority of the British population. For instance, a 2012 meta-analysis of attitude surveys by the thinktank Theos, revealed that about 70% of the British population is neither strictly religious nor strictly non-religious, but rather moving in and out of the undesignated spaces in between.

Thirdly, there is a perspective that might be called secular spirituality, which is typically atheistic or humanistic but does not disavow the idea that some forms of experience, ritual or practice may be deeper or more meaningful than others; a perspective that still finds value in the term ‘spiritual’ as a way to encapsulate that understanding.

Consider, for instance, humanist celebrants giving dignity to marriages and funerals, or the completely open nature of the ‘higher power’ that participants in alcoholics anonymous are asked to place their faith in, or ecstatic dancing, sublime art, the charms of nature, the birth of a child, or even the sexual union that led to it. For all the problems with the word spiritual, there are forms of life where we seem to need it to point towards an appreciation that would otherwise be ineffable.

Personal transformation and Social Transformation

So spirituality can come out the closet. It is by no means a minority issue, and there is no need to be embarrassed by the term. Indeed, we need to talk more freely about it to understand the connection between these diverse and widespread spiritualities and the social, economic and political challenges we face.

For all the problems with the word spiritual, there are forms of life where we seem to need it to point towards an appreciation that would otherwise be ineffable.

I see the connection in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line that “we must be the change we want to see in the world”. These evocative words are a distillation of a much longer statement rather than a direct quotation, but they nonetheless landed on t-shirts, posters and bumper stickers around the world, because the expression speaks to us deeply. We must be the change we want to see in the world.

When I read that line I think to myself: Yes, that’s what I want and need – to close the gap between my actions and my ideals; to make my daily decisions speak to the vision of the kind of world I would like to help bring into being.

But how on earth do I go about that?

Gandhi’s statement highlights the forgotten imperative to connect social transformation with personal transformation, which his leadership of the Indian Independence movement exemplified. The contention here is that we struggle to make this connection because, unlike Gandhi, our identification with the spiritual in private realms is not manifesting publicly. Indeed, our public discourse seems to be becoming spiritually illiterate.

Perspectives, Experiences and Practices:

When it comes to the very practical business of aligning our vision and values with our actions on the word, we look like amateurs, unfamiliar with the tools we need. Spiritual experiences, perspectives and practices are wrongly framed as otherworldly, rather than precious human resources to bring our ideals into being.

By spiritual experiences, I mean experiences that make the world feel viscerally meaningful; moments of aliveness, rapture and homecoming that, as Psychologist Guy Claxton puts it, make ordinary experience seem vapid and attenuated by comparison.

By spiritual practices I mean the disciplined and creative activities that support human development, like meditation and yoga, but also for instance writing, art, or even running – things we do to strengthen our inner lives.

And by spiritual perspectives I mean the value-rich visions of what it means to be here, to be human, our worldviews that contextualise our experiences and practices.

This question of perspective is important, and formative for many, but the science-religion debates of the last few decades struggled to find traction because they said so little about practices and experiences, which for many are closer to the heart of why the spiritual matters.

Our Ground and our Place

For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. Our shared recognition of a brute existential reality brings us back to our common humanity. Life as such is precious to all of us, but our experience of it becomes more visceral, shared, and tangible when it is threatened, as witnessed for instance in the solidarity and kinship widely experienced in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. 

Such moments illustrate a useful and generative distinction. Common to the three main manifestations of the spiritual highlighted above, and therefore fundamental to the concept, spirituality is about our ground, rather than our place. This contrast stems from Buddhism, but it can also be inferred in Heiddeger’s emphasis on the philosophical primacy of the lived experience of being human, or as he puts it, ‘Being-there’.

By our ground I mean the most basic facts of our existence: that we are here at all, that we exist in and through this body that somehow breathes, that we build selves through and for others, that we’re a highly improbable part of an unfathomable whole, and of course, that we will inevitably die. Another way to characterise the relevance of our ground comes from the psychotherapist Mark Epstein who refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’

As anybody who has faced a life threatening illness will know, reflecting on our ground heightens the importance of not postponing our lives, of using the time we have for what really matters to us. And yet, research on the main regrets of the dying indicates the sad fact that we rarely actually do this – most of us do in fact postpone our lives.

And why? Because the world perpetuates our attachment to our place, by which I mean our constructed identities, our fragile reputations, our insatiable desires. We get lost in our identification with our place, and all the cultural signifiers of status that come with it: our dwellings, our salaries, our clothes, our Twitter followers. As T.S. Eliot put it: “We are distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning.”

And this shouldn’t surprise us. In 21st century Britain the average urban adult is exposed to about 3000 adverts a day, and we find ourselves caught up what Economist Tim Jackson calls ‘the social logic of consumption’.

There is no simple causality in such matters, but while our attachment to our place fuels consumption, our experience of our ground may provide immunity to the idea that we need to consume to validate ourselves.

Our failure to come back to the basic conditions of our existence may also be closely connected to the gradual and relentless shift in the public being described as consumers rather than citizens, a shift meticulously documented by the Public Interest Research Centre in national broadsheet references. Consumption predates capitalism, and is part of being human, but consumerism is less benign, a vision of human life that takes us away from our existential ground and threatens our ecological ground in the process.

Of course we need governments and markets, but their qualities and priorities depend on our qualities and priorities as citizens. And where are we in that respect? And how would we know?

Spiritual practice indicates that our everyday consciousness is not a particularly reliable or benign set of states – in fact we are more or less deluded most of the time. Meditation is the best teacher of this troubling fact, which might sound provocative, but is a completely uncontroversial idea for the millions engaged in regular spiritual practice. For instance, former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor characterises our default functioning in the world in terms of ‘compulsive becoming’ and ‘existential flight’.

In this respect, Tocqueville comes to mind. He argued for the moralising power of participation in his classic book, Democracy in America, but on his account religion was a prerequisite for that moralising process, and in lieu of church attendance, which is declining everywhere except, curiously, London, we may need something that serves a similar function to revive collective political will.

This will not be easy. We scramble away from our ground because the alternative is deeply disconcerting. When we succeed in slowing down, it can be quite a shock to glimpse the machinations of our own minds from an unfamiliar vantage point. In most cases we find that our mind’s default state is not to be calm and focussed and judicious, but more like a noisy self-serving storyteller, fuelled by self-concern and anxious justification.

When we succeed in slowing down…in most cases we find that our mind’s default state is not to be calm and focused and judicious, but more like a noisy self-serving storyteller, fuelled by self-concern and anxious justification.

It is hard for us to accept that we rely on such wayward minds to act on the world, but when you begin to sense this inner confusion, you are less inclined to look outside of yourself for answers. For starters, the familiar saying, that if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, begins to look entirely misconceived. American academic Bill Torbert suggests it’s the other way round: “If you don’t realize you’re part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”

Our refusal to face up to our ground, and experience it more viscerally on a regular basis has also made most of us complicit in allowing public policy to become pseudo-objective in its emphasis, characterised by forms of evidence that squeeze out the emotions and experiences that they seek to promote.

We document patterns of social isolation rather than emotionally connect with those who are lonely. We tweak institutional design to improve social care, but say little about showing kindness to neighbours in need. We confidently debate the efficacy of treatments for clinical depression but often conceal our own experiences of sadness. We strain to justify the arts instrumentally, expressing their value in economic terms, while knowing in our hearts that that’s not what they are for. And a growing number of environmentalists, increasingly desperate for traction, now find themselves referring to mother nature – God bless her? – as natural capital.

The neglect of our ground goes beyond political discourse. In every day life ubiquitous technology, abundant news, and an uncomfortable awareness of all the things we will never do or be make our lives feel increasingly centrifugal, in the literal sense that we are drawn away from our centre. Spirituality can therefore be seen, helpfully, as a centripetal force, bringing us back to our ground, back to the fuller version of ourselves that we need to act constructively in the world.

Spirituality as a Radical Perspective

So while spirituality is often charged with escapism, is it not the evasion of the spiritual that is the real escapism? A renewed activism, grounded in spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences may be precisely the radical stance towards the world we now need.

So while spirituality is often charged with escapism, is it not the evasion of the spiritual that is the real escapism? A renewed activism, grounded in spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences may be precisely the radical stance towards the world we now need.

It is no longer radical to suggest that it is mad to fetishize economic growth measured in percentiles of gross domestic product – a measure of human progress that is, above all, completely unrecognisable at a personal scale.

It is no longer radical to suggest that the default five-day working week is not the only way to structure our lives, and looks like an unhelpful convention when many are ill due to overwork, and others, especially the young, remain unemployed.

And it is no longer radical to suggest, along with our finest scientific minds, that the climate alarm cannot be snoozed away, and we urgently need to wake up to plug more than 7 billion people in to an almost entirely different source of energy, to retain a liveable planet in the second half of this century, not some point in the unimaginable future.

What is somewhat radical, however, is to suggest that the reason we are not acting on such imperatives with sufficient conviction is because we are not paying attention to our ground. We have lost sight of the potency of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences in bringing the fundamentals back to our attention.

Former Mayor of Vancouver Sam Sullivan offers an inspiring example. He suffered a skiing accident when he was nineteen, which left him quadriplegic, in a wheelchair for life. A spiritual experience brought him out of despair and sustained spiritual practice related to stoicism helped him forge a celebrated career in disability activism and public service.

Soon after the accident, while contemplating suicide, he imagined his own death in vivid, visceral and bloody terms. After carefully simulating the gunshot in his imagination, he describes how he felt as the witness to his own continued breathing, witnessing the sensation that remained in his disabled body but highly functional mind; now from a renewed, life-affirming perspective: “Somebody could do something with that,” he thought. “Hey, I could do something with that.”

Knowing our Ground.

We need to know ourselves more fully because the resulting awareness helps to make sense of why the gap between the way we are living and the world we would like to create endures.

We need to know ourselves more fully because the resulting awareness helps to make sense of why the gap between the way we are living and the world we would like to create endures.

But how much do we know about our ground, experientially, relationally, scientifically? For most of us, not much (see the seminal essay for the project as a whole: The Brains Behind Spirituality) The experience of spiritual practice, and a growing body of scientific research, reveals just how far our common understanding of who we are is mistaken. Three features of what makes us human illustrate the validity of this broad point.

We are not the isolated, conscious minds often assumed in our folk psychology. Rather, we are fundamentally embodied. Any spirituality that ignores how the body influences what we think and do will not be usefully transformative. The success of Yoga in the west may be precisely because it is grounded in that understanding.

We also need to challenge the modern presumption of automaticity, the idea that we are forever doomed to be creatures of habit, condemned to live in a preoccupied fog, vulnerable to whatever is thrust upon us as salient. So much of the recent emphasis on ‘behaviour change’ in public policy takes our automatic natures as a given. However, the growing mindfulness movement, for instance, speaks to the possibility of individually and collectively waking up from the habitual rumination that keeps us experientially absent, and less than fully alive.

And we need to think about what we call the deep social – not merely that we are social creatures, which is a truism, but that we are physiologically social – that we have evolved through and for each other. While empathy for our family and friends may come naturally, we can also dramatically expand this sense of who ‘we’ are in space and time, through particular forms of spiritual practice – like loving kindness meditation – that have been honed precisely for this purpose. Such practices are not merely nice, but rather essential for international and intergenerational problems like climate change, which we seem to lack political motivation to solve, partly due to the biological limits of empathy.

Coming back to the connection between the spiritual and the political, unlike Russell Brand, Martin Luther King clearly lived and breathed this link and combined both to great effect for civil rights. His reference to love in the following statement is by no means synonymous with the spiritual, but it serves a similar function:

“Power properly understood is …the strength required to bring about social political, and economic change… One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites- polar opposites- so that love is identified with the resignation of power and power with the denial of love.

Now we’ve got to get this thing right…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.”

Spirituality, for me, is about tapping into the deep sources of our own power and love, and the lifelong challenge of bringing them together in practice.

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

 

Spirituality: Rational and Radical

December 15, 2013 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

On Friday, an adapted version of my speech from our first public event in our Spirituality series: ‘Taking Spirituality Seriously’ was published at the website of New Humanist magazine. Some initial positive reactions from Twitter can be found here.

It felt good to publish this piece at the site of the Rationalist Association, a 125-year-old charity dedicated to reason, science & secularism. Choosing to do so does not mean that we are exclusively interested in forms of spirituality that are atheistic or secular, but it helps to fulfill one of the objectives of our extended inquiry into ‘Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain’, which is to defactionalise discussions on such matters.

Most people sense that spirituality is about much more than beliefs in unseen forces and attachment to tribal identities. However, to develop a constructive alternative account we need to draw the discussion away from competing clusters of perspectives on the nature and meaning of the universe (theistic, atheistic, spiritual but not religious, agnostic etc) and back towards human practices and experiences that ground spirituality in our lives, where we can see its universal relevance and political importance.

In the New Humanist essay, I attempt to draw out the link between a particular understanding of spirituality and the pervasive human struggle to close the gap between our ideals and our actions, or how to (as Gandhi apparently didn’t say..) be the change we want to see the world.

Spirituality is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation 

A couple of extracts:

Taking Spirituality Seriously:

“For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political…” – Russell Brand.

Russell Brand’s iconoclastic call for a ‘revolution in consciousness’ was refreshing, half-baked, and overblown. It was refreshing because modern political debates have become too tactical and technocratic to inspire political hope, and the idea that politics has lost touch with deeper foundations rings true. But it was half-baked because there was no clarity about the nature of the link between the spiritual and the political, nor what it would mean to develop it in practice. And it was overblown because as anybody who takes spiritual progress seriously knows, a shift in consciousness may place your work in perspective, but it never does the work for you. To paraphrase an old Zen saying: before enlightenment – use your vote, after enlightenment – use your vote.

‘Spirituality’ may be awkward, embarrassing even, but it’s extremely interesting. The capacious term lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation (….)

Our Ground and our Place

For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. Our shared recognition of a brute existential reality brings us back to our common humanity. Life as such is precious to all of us, but our experience of it becomes more visceral, shared, and tangible when it is threatened, as witnessed for instance in the solidarity and kinship widely experienced in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

Such moments illustrate a useful and generative distinction. Common to the three main manifestations of the spiritual highlighted above, and therefore fundamental to the concept, spirituality is about our ground, rather than our place. This contrast stems from Buddhism, but it can also be inferred in Heiddeger’s emphasis on the philosophical primacy of the lived experience of being human, or as he puts it, ‘Being-there’.

By our ground I mean the most basic facts of our existence: that we are here at all, that we exist in and through this body that somehow breathes, that we build selves through and for others, that we’re a highly improbable part of an unfathomable whole, and of course, that we will inevitably die. Another way to characterise the relevance of our ground comes from the psychotherapist Mark Epstein who refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’

The psychotherapist Mark Epstein refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’ 

As anybody who has faced a life threatening illness will know, reflecting on our ground heightens the importance of not postponing our lives, of using the time we have for what really matters to us. And yet, research on the main regrets of the dying indicates the sad fact that we rarely actually do this – most of us do in fact postpone our lives.

And why? Because the world perpetuates our attachment to our place, by which I mean our constructed identities, our fragile reputations, our insatiable desires. We get lost in our identification with our place, and all the cultural signifiers of status that come with it: our dwellings, our salaries, our clothes, our Twitter followers. As T.S. Eliot put it: “We are distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning.”

The full article (3000+ words) can be read here:

On Being Touched and Moved (Event Preview)

November 26, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Tonight I am chairing an event with my friend and former PhD supervisor Professor Guy Claxton, for the second of our series of public events on Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. The event is booked out with a large waiting list, but you can watch or listen to the event live, download after the event, or follow (and give) comments at the hashtag #RSASpirituality.

For now, I offer the following extracts as an appetiser. I am sure Guy’s thinking has evolved since his inaugural address at Bristol University in 2002 around the time we first met, but I’m equally sure the quality of thinking and expression will be just as good, if not better.  Guy’s main argument tonight will be similar in spirit, enriched by some of his recent thinking on embodied cognition. The following extract follows from the claim that spiritual experiences tend to bring four shifts in the quality of our experience: aliveness, belonging, mystery and peace of mind, which Guy examines as follows:

“Underlying all these four shifts in the quality of experience seems to be an expansion in the sense of identity, so that instead of feeling like an anxious bubble, in constant danger of being jostled or pricked, one feels more union or wholeness, both within and without, and this brings with it more kinship and more trust. It is no coincidence that the descriptions are couched is such glowing language, for those who report them overwhelmingly appraise them as positive and valuable. While from the outside it is possible – as Freud and others have done – to interpret accounts of the Common Experience sceptically or pathologically, from the inside, there is little doubt that something precious, even momentous, has occurred.

I think that experiences like that are small gifts, little tastes of spirituality. And those tastes are attractive, and often leave, when they fade, as they mostly do, a thirst for more of what they have betokened. So here is my definition of spirituality. First, it involves the feeling of being drawn towards such qualities and experiences, and of wanting to increase their likelihood, frequency or stability. The urge is not to seek them piecemeal, however, but to develop the quality of being which underpins them. Second, spirituality may involve a strengthening desire to seek the company of people who seem to possess these qualities more strongly: to find what Buddhists call a sangha. And third, and less comfortably, the spiritual impulse may involve a feeling of heightened dissatisfaction with the absences or the opposites of such qualities. A taste of intensified aliveness may make normal energy levels and perceptions feel grey and dull. That blast of ‘belonging’ can make that orphaned feeling all the more intolerable. A surge of ‘mystery’ may make adventure seem more attractive than conventional security. And even a moment of deeply felt inner peace can painfully accentuate a more familiar feeling of self-consciousness or confusion.”

Is Spirituality coming out of the closet?

October 25, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I have been waiting for ‘life to settle down a bit’ before reflecting on last week’s public event Beyond Belief: Taking Spirituality Seriouslybut that looks like it’s not going to happen, so here goes:

The main thing to say is that I felt a sense of relief. I’m 36 and it’s about time I felt at ease in my own skin, so it was liberating to talk about something in public that is an important part of my life and work- it wasn’t quite like coming out of the closet, but the event as a whole did have that slight confessional feeling to it.

And it was an encouraging start. The event booked out very quickly, the Great Room was packed with over 160 people, there was a chatty group (I’m told) in the spillover room downstairs, an online audience, many stayed behind afterwards, there was some tweeting (though we could have done a better job of stoking the fires) and the RSAreplay video has been viewed almost 3,000 times in just over a week.

There were also thoughtful public responses from co-panelist Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, and Philosopher Jules Evans, who is working as a consultant on the project, and many more positive (and a few constructively critical) emails and comments came to me privately.

The general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.

Qualitatively speaking, it is harder to judge, but the general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.

In this respect I liked Jules’s remark that: “I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breathe easier.”

I know that some in the audience may have hoped for a less qualified discussion and a more transformative experience, but given the diversity of perspectives,the nature of the medium, and the organisational context, I only have a certain amount of sympathy with that view! The four of us on stage were not there as sages or gurus; the event was about publicly airing our collective concern with such matters, rather than advocating a particular spiritual practice or metaphysical worldview.

I plan to share the text of my speech from the event here in due course, but first wanted to pitch an amended version of it to a few external sources, to spread the word, as it were, as far as possible.

Short Speech:

I am not fond of speeches that are read out, but on this occasion it felt appropriate to mark the moment with choice words, rather than roll the dice with improvised remarks. The crux of my pitch was that we have lost sight of the essential link between personal and social transformation, and that we need spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences to bring that link back to our attention. (For what it’s worth, this morning I noticed that no less than Russell Brand is making a similar case in his guest editorship of New Statesman, but I would want to check the details before claiming him as an ally!)

In my opening remarks, I introduced a core distinction to encapsulate a common theme among different forms of spirituality (e.g. religious spirituality, ‘spiritual but not religious’, secular spirituality) namely the distinction between our ground (the basic facts of our existence) and our place (our social standing) and suggested that many of our existing social and ecological problems stem from getting distracted by a fixation with our place, and losing sight of our ground.

This pervasive neglect and imbalance manifests principally through the constant pressure to work in order to consume, but is also evident in our widespread de-facto denial of climate change, and an increase in mental health problems.

This is not an easy subject to talk about. I find myself torn between repeating the main messages in ‘The Brains Behind Spirituality’ essay in this summer’s journal that opened the discussion, and trying to forge new ground, as I began to here, and in the speech. Some are willing to follow these lines of thought, but others struggle to forge ahead without a clearer sense of what kind of work we are asking the contested word ‘spiritual’ to do for us. Some people seem to want a canonical definition, but the very nature of the term is much more like a placeholder concept to mark out key questions that otherwise lack a conceptual reference point.

For those who are not merely ambivalent about the term, but actively hostile towards it, I should say that I have written before about why spirituality is not a distinctly capitalist phenomenon, about buying new age products and services, and has a much deeper relevance as a critique of certain aspects of capitalist society.

Highlights:

It was good to hear Madeleine Bunting draw attention to the fact that such a discussion was entirely consistent with the RSA’s history, and also acknowledge that, sadly, hosting such a discussion today was ‘brave’. I also agree with her that while semantic discussions rarely feel productive, sometimes the words we choose to discuss such matters are the single most important thing. Part of the bravery is to stick with the discussion about the words, while being clear about the limitations of what such a discussion can reveal.

Elizabeth Oldfield’s reference to ‘the human propensity to f*** things up’, or ‘HPtFtU’ is useful. It stems from the outstandingly written book: Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and is presented as an accessible way to understand the idea of original sin. In some respects HPtFtU is very much what my introductory talk was about, and there might be interesting connections between the shared psychological underpinnings of the Christian notion of ‘sin’ and the Secular Buddhist notion of ‘ground’ to be explored for those who are so inclined.

I was grateful to Robert Rowland Smith for beginning his remarks by saying: “I’m wondering why Madeleine is so freaked out by the word ‘spirituality…’” because is spared me from doing so, and more broadly it was helpful to have an historical and dialectical perspective on how we came to this moment of cultural confusion about how to discuss fundamental human questions in public.

In Defence of Scented Candles….

It was also funny to see ‘scented candles in the bath’ given such a hard time as a metaphor for spirituality as self-indulgent pampering rather than self-transforming practice. I am very keen to move discussions of spirituality away from such references, but for the record, I am quite partial to a nice scented candle!

RSA events are now a global brand, and as such they have certain constraints. One of these constraints is that our public events have a limited range of formats and almost never extend beyond 75 minutes. Last Wednesday we ended with unanswered questions about a version of ‘the objective transcendent’ that wasn’t God, and human aspiration not being big enough to reconceive the spiritual in a challenging way. I felt like a real curmudgeon to end the discussion when I did.

There is certainly more to say, so please keep in mind that the conversation is just beginning!

Follow me @jonathan_rowson

Taking Spirituality Seriously: “Too tweetable to tweet”

October 17, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I will update this post soon with some thoughts and reactions, but for those who missed it, I wanted to share the unedited replay of last night’s packed event about rethinking spirituality, with myself, Madeleine Bunting, Elizabeth Oldfield, Robert Rowland Smith and very informed audience, which can be found here.

In the meantime, two recent posts to make sense of the background context for the event: The Brains behind Spirituality and Taking Spirituality Seriously.

The best line of the night, for me, came from our joint Head of Events, Mairi Ryan, who found herself feeling too engaged and absorbed to draw her attention away and live tweet while the discussion was underway.

As she put it just after it was all over: “It was too tweetable to tweet.”

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