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.”
I have been waiting for ‘life to settle down a bit’ before reflecting on last week’s public event Beyond Belief: Taking Spirituality Seriously, but 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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
Later this month I will be giving a short talk at the beginning of an RSA public event introducing the project outlined in The Brains Behind Spirituality. I am arguing that we need a reappraisal of the cultural and social value of spirituality as essential foundational work for deepening our understanding of a range of practical and policy issues.
As outlined in the above essay, rather than thinking of ‘the spiritual’ as an aspect of religion, or as an alternative to religion, we want to view it through the lens of what we have learnt (or perhaps remembered) about human nature over the last few decades; including the fact that our cognition has evolved and it is embodied in flesh, embedded in culture and extended through technology; we have a fundamentally social nature, we are burdened and blessed by automaticity, and we now understand that our ‘self’ may not be unitary and soul-like but rather in some sense illusory, protean or virtual, and created and maintained mostly through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
The resulting conception of the spiritual is evolving, but some core aspects of what might be considered central to spirituality – meaning, belief and morality for instance, do start to look very different. In the talk I will develop the idea that meaning is best understood as embodied and made, that belief is more about social and cultural norms than factual propositions and that morality is best understood as dispositional rather than rational; not so much about adhering to ethical precepts, but closely connected with our idea of self and our capacity to experience it as illusory and constructed, while also working towards the experience of integration.
It is a daunting task. In about twelve minutes I will have to cover a lot of ground, so for now I wanted to try to hone the part about the rationale for the project, which also relates to why the RSA might be doing something like this. I currently see three main reasons why it is timely and important to enrich our idea of spirituality:
In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and less likely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration
1) In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and unlikely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration – of what we should be aiming for – and ‘wellbeing’, a relatively static concept, doesn’t always suffice.
2) In light of the intractability of various social and ecological challenges, include climate change, security, and public health, we need to deepen and widen our understanding of what ‘behaviour change‘ might mean.
3) There are several policy domains where ‘spirituality’ is recognised as being important – education, end of life care, mental health, but the concept is rarely unpacked in detail and needs a sounder grounding in what we know about ourselves.
To take these in turn:
1) Beyond wellbeing: aspiration in austerity.
The extent to which money makes you happy is complex, and to some extent unresolved, but the evidence appears to indicate that, at best, money brings diminishing returns for wellbeing. More to the point, in the context of public debt, austerity, and increasingly salient environmental limits on economic expansion, it is likely to be harder for most people to meet material aspirations for the foreseeable future. It is therefore timely to look more closely at what non-material aspiration looks like.
The issue is not so much the familiar ethical question of how we should live, but the more subtle one of how we can grow and develop over time rather than merely change. If what I seek to improve or increase is not necessarily my wealth, what is it? The domain for such questions used to be philosophy and religion, but these questions have a new urgency in the developed world, and we may need to look in new places for the answers.
One such place is ‘How much is enough?’ by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, which is a marvellous book (Rowan Williams called it ‘crisp and pungent’) with the underlying claim in the virtue ethics tradition that our proper collective aim is to help people not just to be happy, but to have reasons to be happy.
You don’t need spirituality to have reason to be happy, but it could help rather a lot. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls spirituality ‘a signature strength’ which is an important aspect of resilience, and he suggests it is about “knowing where you fit in the larger scheme,” as he writes in his book, Flourish.
There are abundant definitions of spirituality, and my particular framing of spirituality is gradually emerging. I am beginning to think of it as a mixture of three inter-related fundamental aspects of how we relate to each other and the world: perspectives (world views, life stances, values), practices (meditation, rituals, customs) and experiences (belonging, aliveness, transcendence). On this framing, spiritual growth is about enriching our capacity to develop and align our perspectives, practices and experiences. In this sense spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.
2) Deepening behaviour change: ‘improving the grain’ of human nature.
The hegemonic behaviour change perspective – libertarian paternalism (‘nudge‘) takes many aspects of human nature as givens- things we should just accept and work with rather than try to change. Policymakers in the UK and many other countries are increasingly advised to ‘go with the grain’ of human nature, as if this grain was invariant and inflexible. This perspective has its place, but is largely blind to the potential of spiritual practice.
spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.
To take two examples, while much of human behaviour is automatic, and heavily influenced by the choice architectures of the surrounding environment, messenger effects, social norms and a range of other influences, meditators who have cultivated the capacity for mindfulness have much greater control over their reactions. Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control. This may not make them entirely immune to all cognitive biases, but it does show the possibility that we can change our ‘grain’.
Second, in the Summer RSA Journal, there was an article about ‘The Biological limits of empathy‘ by Steven Asma who makes the superficially compelling case that there are limits to how much we can expand our empathy:
“If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers…Our tribes of kith and kin are ‘affective communities’ and this unique emotional connection with our favourites entails great generosity and selfless loyalty. There is an upper limit to our tribal emotional expansion and that limit makes universal empathy impossible.”
Now I am not saying he is strictly wrong, but I strongly suspect he hasn’t heard of metta bhavana, or ‘loving kindness meditation‘, which is precisely about expanding this sense of empathy and care beyond our natural impulses. If every child were to learn this practice and be supported in doing it regularly with supervision and advice, the ‘upper limit’ to empathy and ‘emotional expansion’ may not hold at all.
Moreover, I have only skimmed the surface with just two forms of practice, from a predominantly Buddhist perspective. Other traditions would have things to say, and the Common Cause group may add that you don’t even need spiritual practice to illustrate this point, and that it is enough to prime people’s sense of caring about bigger-that-self problems to get them to think and act more generously and altruistically.
3) Informing spiritual needs and practices in specific domains.
Later this week RSA Education is hosting a workshop on “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education‘ and although I don’t know the area well, I believe the ‘spiritual’ dimension is considered particularly hard to teach and assess.
One of the best references to inform this perspective is Guy Claxton’s Inaugural address to Bristol Graduate School of Education in 2002 called ‘Mind Expanding‘. He unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.
Claxton unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.
The claim is that if they don’t find such experiences in safe nurturing environments, they may seek them out elsewhere. So gangs may give belonging, crime may offer aliveness, drugs the experience of mystery and so forth. The point is definitely not to encourage such activities, but to recognise the legitimate spiritual need that legitimately seeks a less harmful form of expression.
So that’s my current pitch for the relatively public aspect of the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ question of Spirituality. It’s very much a work in progress, so if you have made it this far, I would be very grateful for any thoughts.
The recent post ‘The Brains Behind Spirituality‘ received an unprecedented number of page views on this site. As many giving feedback have mentioned, there will always be the problem of definition, but as I mention in the above piece, for any given fuzzy edged form of knowledge or inquiry – including ‘spirituality’ – the question to ask is not so much- what’s the definition? But rather, what’s the injunction? Sometimes it is worth pinning something down in words to give analytic traction, but sometimes it is more productive to ask what our intuitive grasp of the idea asks us to do, think or be in a more general sense:
“…Every culturally sanctioned form of knowledge contains an implicit injunction. The injunction of science is to do the experiment and analyse the data. The injunction of history is to critically engage with primary and secondary sources of evidence. The injunction of philosophy is to question assumptions, make distinctions and be logical. If spirituality is to be recognised as something with ontological weight and social standing, it also needs an injunction that is culturally recognised, as it was for centuries in the Christian west and still is in many societies worldwide.
The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.”
Of course, such expansive self-knowledge is not about narcissism but quite the opposite- it’s about seeing beyond our limited conception of who we are; through experience and the best available evidence. The following three sources speak to this spiritual injunction in various ways:
1. Rowan Williams on ‘spirituality’ in the Guardian.
“I’d like to think, at the very least, that spiritual care meant tending to every possible dimension of sense of the self and each other, that it was about filling out as fully as possible human experience” -Rowan Williams.
While Williams rightly has reservations with the way the term spiritual is used and misused, this sentiment relates closely to our perspective mentioned above.
2. Secular Buddhism and Secular Christianity
The general spiritual injunction to know oneself beyond the confines of the ego is different from the particular religious injunctions about how to do that, but they are related in important ways. In this respect I was fascinated to discover a conversation between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt organised by The Secular Buddhist Association and chaired by the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting. Both Batchelor (in Buddhism) and Cupitt (in Christianity) are known for deep absorption, training and experience in their respective traditions, followed by letting go of the tenets that underpin them, but, crucially, without disavowing the religious tradition as a whole(In Scotland, Richard Holloway is similar). Here are a few choice quotes from the transcript:
Stephen Batchelor: “I feel myself to be a religious person, but I feel that to be more the case in terms of the sorts of questions that most deeply motivate me. What is this life, what is death? Rather than religious in the sense of adhering to a particular set of dogmas or doctrines or beliefs. In some ways this is a sense of religion that is quite close to the old Greek understanding of philosophia, of the love of wisdom, of philosophy.”
Don Cupitt: ”It was in the sixties that we began to get a shift away from institutional religion towards spirituality. A shift away from ecclesiastical theology towards what I call kingdom religion, a shift away from the supernatural Nicene Creed to the original historical Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount…The important thing: people were giving up two-world dualism and accepting that this life is all there is, and you’d better start living the last kind of life in the last world now. Because this is the last life you’ll ever have. You’re already living in the last world.”
Stephen Batchelor: “…I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly… So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life”
3. Beyond Dawkins: New editor at the The New Humanist
Finally, I was pleased to read the following hard headed and conciliatory piece by the new Editor of the magazine of UK’s Rationalist association(The New Humanist) Daniel Trillings, because it is important to recognise that valuing reason and challenging orthodoxies does not have to mean zealous disdain for religion:
“Declaring one’s self a non-believer, or an atheist, is not a free pass to the sunlit uplands of truth and reason. And if you regard organised religion as merely a product of misguided beliefs, then you lose the ability to understand why it grows and changes historically, and why politicised forms of religion are so attractive to millions of people around the world. Psychological studies that throw up conclusions like “religious people are less intelligent than atheists” not only rely on an extremely narrow definition of “intelligence”, but as their own authors will point out, are influenced by factors such as employment, salary and time spent in the education system.”
With this kind of generosity of spirit, I’m looking forward to future issues of the magazine.
By Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director, Social Brain Centre. Follow at @jonathan_rowson
The Summer issue of the RSA Journal features the following essay outlining the intellectual context for a new project by the Social Brain Centre. We are examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large.
We are currently completing our background research for a series of forthcoming workshops and public events, culminating in a final report in 2014.
The Brains Behind Spirituality
Immanuel Kant said that the impact of liberal enlightenment on our spiritual life was such that if somebody were to walk in on you while you were on your knees praying, you would be profoundly embarrassed. That imagined experience of embarrassment is still widely felt in much of the modern western world, not merely for religious believers, but for the silent majority who consider themselves in some sense ‘spiritual’ without quite knowing what that means. This sense of equivocation is felt when we hear the term ‘spiritual’ referred to apologetically in intellectual contexts. Consider, for instance, ‘the mental, emotional or even spiritual qualities of the work’, or ‘the experience was almost spiritual in its depth and intensity’.
This unease with public discussions of spirituality is not universal and clearly varies within and between countries. Perhaps the embarrassment is a peculiar affliction of western intellectuals, since ‘spiritual’ appears to convey shared meaning perfectly well in ordinary language throughout most of the world. This intellectual unease matters because spiritual expression and identification is an important part of life for millions of people. But it currently remains ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, lacks credibility in the public domain.
“many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief” – Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr astutely opened a recent BBC discussion by referring to the “increasingly hot-tempered public struggle between religious believers and so-called militant atheists, and yet many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief”. There is some empirical backing for this claim. Post-Religious Britain: The Faith of the Faithless, 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. While the power of organised Christian religion may be in decline, only about 9% are resolutely atheistic, and it is more accurate to think of an amorphous spiritual pluralism that needs our help to find its form.
The point of rethinking spirituality is not so much to challenge these boundaries, but to clarify what it means to say that the world’s main policy challenges may be ultimately spiritual in nature. When you consider how we might, for instance, become less vulnerable to terrorism, care for an ageing population, address the rise in obesity or face up to climate change, you see that we are – individually and collectively – deeply conflicted by competing commitments and struggling to align our actions with our values. In this respect, we are relatively starved for forms of practice or experience that might help to clarify our priorities and uncover what Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan calls our immunity to change. The best way to characterise problems at that level is spiritual.
There are so many dimensions to spirituality that it is necessary to qualify what we are talking about. Personally, I think of it principally as the lifelong challenge to embody one’s vision of human existence and purpose, expressed most evocatively in Gandhi’s call to be the change you want to see in the world. Others may place greater emphasis on the forms of experience that inspire the changes we want to see, or the realities we need to accept.
Personally, I think of the spiritual principally in terms of the lifelong challenge to embody one’s vision of human existence and purpose, expressed most evocatively in Gandhi’s call to be the change you want to see in the world.
Being spiritual can mean safeguarding our sense of the sacred, valuing the feeling of belonging or savouring the rapture of intense absorption. And then there is the quintessential gratitude we feel when we periodically notice, as gift and revelation, that we are alive.
Such experiences do not depend upon doctrine or on institutional endorsement or support. They are as likely to arise listening to music, walking in nature, celebrating the birth of a child, reflecting on a life that is about to end, or losing oneself – in a good sense – in the crowd. With such a rich range of dimensions, it is regrettable that spirituality is still framed principally through the prism of organised religion. But it is perhaps no less unfortunate that those who value spiritual experience and practice are often suspiciously quick to disassociate themselves from belief in God and religion, as if such things were unbearably unfashionable and awkward, rather than perhaps the richest place to understand the nature of spiritual need.
Spiritual but not religious
While there has been a growing normalisation of the idea that a person can be ‘spiritual but not religious’, this designation may actually compound the problem of intellectual embarrassment. It does nothing to clarify what spirituality might mean outside of religious contexts, nor how religion might valuably support and inform non-believers. 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. And the category of spiritual but not religious hardly does justice to the myriad shades of identification and longing within it and outside it. What are we to make, for instance, of the fact disclosed in the same Theos report, that about a quarter of British atheists believe in human souls?
Such findings highlight that spiritual embarrassment is grounded in confusion about human nature and human needs. We struggle to speak of the spiritual with coherence mostly because it has been subsumed by historical and cultural contingency, and is now smothered in an uncomfortable space between religion and the rejection of religion. Surely religions are the particular cultural, doctrinal and institutional expressions of human spiritual needs, which are universal? In this respect, is it not the sign of a spiritually degenerate society that many feel obliged to define their fundamental outlook on the world in such relativist and defensive terms? Compare the designations: ‘educated, but not due to schooling’ or ‘healthy, but not because of medicine’.
There must be a better place to begin the inquiry. The categorisation spiritual but not religious still tacitly assumes the most important question to interrogate is which version of reality we should subscribe to, rather than what it might mean to grow spiritually in a societal context where for most people belief in God need feel neither axiomatic nor problematic. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer highlighted the depth of this point on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme when he responded to the question of what he believed by saying: “I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.”
One major challenge in making the spiritual more tangible and tractable is, therefore, to enrich our currently impoverished idea of what it means to believe. To believe something is often assumed to mean endorsing a statement of fact about how things are, but that is both outdated and unhelpful.
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 praying non-believer illustrates that belief may be much closer to what the sociologist of religion William Morgan described as “a shared imaginary, a communal set of practices that structure life in powerfully aesthetic terms”. Within the same discipline Gordon Lynch suggests this point needs deepening: “The unquestioned status of propositional models of belief within the sociology of religion arguably reflects a lack of theoretical discussion… about the nature of the person as a social agent.”
It is therefore time to question the common default position that emphasises the autonomous individual striving to consciously construct their own religious belief system as a guide to how they should act in the world. It is not just about sociality. The emerging early 21st century view of human nature indicates we are fundamentally embodied, constituted by evolutionary biology, embedded in complex online and offline networks, largely habitual creatures, highly sensitive to social and cultural norms, riddled with cognitive quirks and biases, and much more rationalising than rational.
It is time to question the common default position that emphasises the autonomous individual striving to consciously construct their own religious belief system as a guide to how they should act in the world.
Such a shift in perspective is important because every culturally sanctioned form of knowledge contains an implicit injunction. The injunction of science is to do the experiment and analyse the data. The injunction of history is to critically engage with primary and secondary sources of evidence. The injunction of philosophy is to question assumptions, make distinctions and be logical. If spirituality is to be recognised as something with ontological weight and social standing, it also needs an injunction that is culturally recognised, as it was for centuries in the Christian west and still is in many societies worldwide.
The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.
Such self-knowledge is a deeply reflexive matter. The point is not to casually introspect, but rather to strive to connect our advanced third-person understanding of human nature with a growing skill in observing how one’s first-person nature manifests in practice, and to test the validity and relevance of this experience and understanding in second-person contexts. In this sense, spirituality is about I, we and it, and this process of trying to know oneself more fully, both in understanding and experience, is therefore no mere prelude to meaningful social change, but the thing itself.
The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible.
There are many ways to illustrate how new conceptions of human nature might revitalise our appreciation for the spiritual. The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s work on the competing worldviews of the two brain hemispheres offers a new perspective on the challenge of creating balance in one’s thought and life. Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist, has suggested that we can’t really do anything about our innumerable cognitive frailties, but this questionable claim is challenged by mindfulness practices, where we can see and feel the root cause of some of our mental tendencies and biases more viscerally. And cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s idea that thinking is fundamentally grounded in bodily metaphors gives us new appreciation for our need to be touched, moved or inspired on a regular basis.
The point of reconsidering spirituality through such lenses is not to explain away spiritual content. We do not want to collapse our deliciously difficult existential and ethical issues into psychological and sociological concepts. The point is rather to explore the provenance of those questions and experiences with fresh intellectual resources.
Returning to Kant, if enlightenment in his view was about humanity emerging into adulthood, one corollary is that unquestioning subservience to organised religion may now be condemned as immature. However, the deeper implication is that we need to rediscover or develop mature forms of spirituality, grounded both in what we can never really know about our place in the universe, and what we can know – and experience – about ourselves.
By Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director, RSA Social Brain Centre. Follow @Jonathan_Rowson
Did Andy Murray *really* find The Holy Grail?
I wanted to share an amusing but in many ways revealing quotation I just came across at the ever-absorbing blog of Jules Evans. This blog post is particularly worth a read, posing the question of whether we ask too much of Sport, and whether Sport may be filling spiritual gaps that religion left behind. That’s a big question that Jules deals with in depth and which I hope to return to, but for now:
From the leader piece in The Times the day after Andy Murray won Wimbledon, by Simon Barnes:
“Joy puts it too conservatively. This was beyond all earthly concepts of joy: this was, for a few moments of eternity, nothing less than bliss. This really is something pretty immense: something nobody from this country has done since the world was young, something he has dedicated his life to….by the end it really seemed as if something more than a sporting prize had been won – as if some mythical, mystical quest had been achieved. It didn’t feel like a mere metaphor when he at last picked up that magic golden cup; it really seemed that this really was the Holy Grail.”
Mind published an interesting blog post on their website today, in which a woman with bipolar disorder describes the importance of her spirituality in staying well. The spirituality she describes is explicitly non-religious.
It’s interesting to contrast her experience with the recent finding that people who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ are more likely to experience mental health difficulties than those who belong to a religion.
Mark Vernon’s piece discussing this is well worth reading. It occurs me to that the writer of Mind’s blog post is absolutely right in saying that giving due attention to spiritual needs is long overdue.
It’s important to make a couple of points about the framing of this issue. Firstly, that ‘spirituality’ can be more than merely ‘new age’ and secondly, that it doesn’t always have to be juxtaposed with religion. Indeed, the Social Brain Centre is in the early stages of exploring how spirituality might be reconceived based on new understandings of human nature, and there will be more about that here soon…
Fancy losing weight, looking younger, living longer, fending off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and even cancer, whilst eating whatever you want? This is only some of what the 5:2 fasting diet claims to offer, and the only catch is that you have to fast twice a week. The ‘fast’ days do not require complete starvation, but instead involve heavily restricted calories – 500 for a woman and 600 for a man. It’s up to the individual how to make up the calories, but the suggestion is that you eat breakfast and one other meal, either lunch or dinner.
The evidence is strong that it’s a very effective way to lose weight. But there’s more to it than that – much has been made of the link between this pattern of eating and increased longevity. Research conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging indicates that levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are lowered by twice-weekly fasting. Controlling levels of IGF-1 can promote longevity as well as offering protection against a range of diseases.
High levels of IGF-1 are thought to increase the cell divisions associated with cancer, hence the possibility that reducing it may offer defence against it. Although this evidence is encouraging, the sceptical scientific community still feel that more extensive research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Some critics have suggested that the extremes involved might result in the development of eating disorder, although there is no hard evidence for this either.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze?
Since the BBC broadcast a documentary about it last year, the diet has grown hugely in popularity, with celebrity support coming from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is there something different about this approach to reducing the amount we eat, or is it just another boom and bust fad diet like Atkins or Dukan? According to those who champion it, this approach to reducing calorific intake is much easier to sustain because of the fact that five days out of seven are unrestricted.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze? However hungry you might get on the fast day, is the knowledge that you could have a full English breakfast the next day enough to get you through?
It seems to me that this particular approach to eating might not only be easier to stick to than others, but could also encourage deeper consideration of one’s relationship with food. Having not tried this diet myself, I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but I suspect that on fast days, you are more acutely aware of your body’s need for food than on days when you’re eating whatever you want. By deliberately depriving yourself of the ‘usual’ amount of food, you are choosing to make yourself somewhat uncomfortable which much have psychological and maybe spiritual effects as well as physical ones.
The Islamic month of Ramadan uses fasting as a way of teaching Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity, as well as encouraging reflection on the suffering of the poor, who may be forced to fast through poverty. Being hungry is used as a vehicle for nurturing the skills needed to maintain self-control – acting as a tool for sustaining mindfulness. Perhaps some of these benefits can be gained through regular intermittent fasting as well.
Advocates of the 5:2 diet talk about quite enjoying the feeling of hunger (knowing that it will be short-lived) and of feeling exhilarated on the fast days and liberated on the days when no restrictions are in place. From the various accounts I’ve read of doing the diet, I have not seen explicit mention of spiritual or psychological benefits, but I have a suspicion that impacts on these domains may go some way towards explaining its popularity.
For many of us, today is the first day back at work after the Christmas break. It’s the time for fresh starts, clean pages, and resolutions. The clichés tell us that the New Year is an opportunity to put some distance between ourselves and last year’s bad habits, ill-advised decisions and unhealthy obsessions.
The Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, speaking on the Today programme’s Thought for the Day this morning, spoke of his childhood pleasure at receiving a new exercise book at the start of a new term. He used this as a platform to go on to talk about the importance of forgiveness, but his mention of the new exercise book took me back to the first day back at middle school after the Christmas holidays.
The pristine, yellow exercise books would be waiting in a crisp pile on the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. The first task was to write my name, class number, teacher’s name and subject in the lined box on the front cover. I would do this carefully, first in pencil, to make sure my script was as neat and elegant as possible, and then, once satisfied, I’d go over it, allowing the ink to flow from the freshly inserted cartridge in my fountain pen. Finally, once the ink had dried, I would select my cleanest, softest, pencil eraser and rub out the spidery shadow of my pencil-drafted name.
I distinctly remember admiring the look of the newly titled and personalised exercise book, flicking through the clean, empty pages, and promising myself that I would fill it with only the most careful, accurate and neatest work. Compared to the dog-eared, mistake-filled book from last term, it really did seem to represent an invigorating and exciting chance to do things differently.
So, this morning, when I switched on my computer and Google Chrome flashed up a message offering to restore the tabs I had open on the last working day before Christmas, I paused for a moment before declining the offer. And then, when faced with a blank search page, I felt a bit sad that there is no pristine, empty exercise book for me to flick through, internally promising that it will be filled with more thoughtful, careful and considered work than last year’s. Somehow, a clean sweep of tabs on my browser just doesn’t hold the same power to make me feel filled the promise of a new year.
In the digital age, more and more of us are pretty much permanently plugged in to cyber communication of one sort or another. I didn’t look at my Twitter feed for several days over Christmas, but I’m fairly sure it didn’t dry up. With our smart-phones permanently by our sides, for many of us it’s rare that we really create distance between the world ‘out there’ and our inner selves.
Perhaps it’s an odd symbol, but for me the fresh exercise book at the start of a new school term really did offer an opportunity for something akin to a reflective moment, perhaps even a spiritual one. In the absence of fresh new stationery to bring in the New Year, I’m wondering what are our equivalent modern symbols – what small rituals do you have that allow for moments of reflection?