Taking Spirituality Seriously

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  • Education
  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

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.

There are also significant bodies of research on spirituality in nursing  and in psychiatry and no doubt numerous other domains that need to better understood and appreciated.

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.

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  • Many thanks for your reply, and for the tip about Francisco Varela. I hope we have the chance to discuss further, and I look forward to seeing what the 'promissory note' turns into! All the best, Chris.

  • Thanks for the comment. I think the first thing to say is that the paragraph you quote is a promissory note rather than a developed case, but on reflection the broader question doesn't actually seem very problematic to me.

    There will obviously be limitations of language when it comes to describing 'the meaning of meaning' or 'the experience of experience'...but that's not really the issue, for me at least. The point is rather to challenge our everyday understandings of what it means for something to be meaningful, moral etc...to say, in effect, that there are many ways to look at such things, some of which are informed by relatively new understandings that many are not aware of.

    I am not sure what it means in terms of Wittgenstinian language games, but if this is what interests you I would recommend Francisco Varela's work, particularly the journal of consciousness studies collection on first person experience where he speaks about acquiring expertise in discussing phenomenological states.

    Thanks for the psychiatry links. I have the feeling I haven't answered your question, but hope we get a chance to talk at more length at some point.

  • About spirituality: Viktor Frankl's works have helped me quite a lot in my life.

  • Perhaps it's not always a reappraisal that is needed, just a remembering of what is already out there?

    The Fourth Way/Gurdjieff approach - which I'm involved with - has a very non-unitary approach to the self. It focuses on multiplicity, or subpersonalities or selves. Such approaches to 'I positions', narrative selves, or suchlike seem very common nowadays across psychology and therapy (see John Rowan's recent book 'Personification: Using the Dialogical Self in Psychotherapy and Counselling').

    The Fourth Way folks also focus strongly on our automaticity, the illusion of free will, etc - and how to overcome this situation.

    Gurdjieffian practices seem fairly common in other schools of spirituality, such as AH Almaas' 'Diamond Approach' - and Gurdjieff's Enneagram is now ubiquitous, and people seem to find it helpful in their transformative work.

    It could be revealing to look at the established (and effective?) practices that different schools of spirituality are using, with a Social Brain lens?