On Being Touched and Moved (Event Preview) - RSA

On Being Touched and Moved (Event Preview)

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  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

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."

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  • I just put this event report about Guy Claxton's lecture up in the RSA Fellows' LInkedin group (do join it, if you're an RSA Fellow!) - http://www.linkedin.com/groups...


    RSA event report: Guy Claxton on glimpses of spirituality + embodied cognition; what did you think?

    Did you come along to Tuesday’s fascinating and wide-ranging RSA lecture by Guy Claxton? If you did, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    It was such an interesting event that Indra Adnan - who ran a pioneering series entitled ‘The ‘S’ word’ at the ICA years ago [spirituality then felt to be undiscussable in liberal circles!] - is thinking of organising some discussion salons for Fellows, to accompany this series of RSA spirituality events. (Let me know if you’d be interested in attending, if these go ahead).

    The lecture was titled ‘On Being Touched and Moved: why spirituality is really about the body’ - http://www.thersa.org/events/a...

    Guy warned us at the outset: 'If you've come looking for enlightenment, this is going to be another disappointing experience for you!' - after hearing that some had wanted
    something somehow more ‘transformative’ from the first in the series of 6 events that Jonathan Rowson (Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre) is running. Here’s his blog post about the event: http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/201.... Tuesday’s event was the second in the series.


    In Guy’s view spirituality originates in short-lived felt experiences - elusive 'Glimpses', which have be called many things. Maslow famously called them ‘Peak experiences’.

    Spiritual practice seeks to stabilise these Glimpses - to make them ‘home ground, rather than holiday accommodation’, he explained. Religions are sets of practices often taught by someone who seems to have achieved that stabilisation.

    He suggested that up to 50 or 60% of people admit to such glimpses but mostly don’t feel safe about sharing them with others. He shared some of the examples of spiritual experiences gathered by the Alister Hardy Research Centre (I
    have belatedly remembered that I think I sent them my own such ‘Glimpse’, decades ago, when I used to receive their newsletter. I’ve been in a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ since that temporary experience, I suppose…;-) ).

    The glimpses feel like concrete reality unmasked, he said - but are frustratingly hard to explain in words. David Steindl-Rast talks about it feeling like a shift from ‘longing to belonging’, a feeling of greater trust and less worry - that feels like a reconnection to our birthright.


    He then talked more about the role of the body, and how the role of the ‘bubbles of conscious thought’ have been exaggerated, instead the body has the central role (along Jonathan Haidt lines, perhaps). In reality we are ecologically connected, and unconsciously influenced - reality is made up of systems, waves, Bohmian implicate orders etc...

    A Glimpse is 'seen and felt, not construed or imagined. It is embodied', he said.

    Though attempting to keep scientific and objective, he was persuaded to mention some of the Teachers he had followed (eg the controversial Osho/Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Ram Dass, Martine and Stephen Batchelor) even admitting that he was once accused of being 'a spiritual autograph-hound'! ;-)

    My own brief glimpse did seem to reveal that true reality is really one of the deepest empathy and pro-sociality - yet, as Guy explained, very temporary!

    So like Matthew Taylor’s ‘Social Aspiration gap’, few seem to have cracked the challenge of turning temporary states into enduring realities (and some of the teachers who do achieve this, seem to become worryingly otherwordly, to the point of self-neglect. I think Ramana Maharshi might’ve been one example of this).

    Though I can’t precisely put my finger on why, I personally - at the end of the day - think this ‘spiritual’ growth might be crucial to the full realisation of RSA agendas. Prof Kegan at his lecture at the RSA in May - http://www.thersa.org/events/v... - explained how even the (pre-spiritual?) growth of the capacity in more people for the ‘Self-transforming’ mind would have a huge positive impact on humanity’s ability to cope well with the world’s ‘Wicked’ issues (issues that the more common independent and ‘arrogant’ mindsets don’t work well with).

    In case this sounds too woolly, these understandings were used by Mike Pitt, the CEO of Kent County Council - who received a Knighthood for the transformation he wrought there. I wrote a short case study about Kent in ‘Anti Hero - the Hidden Revolution in Leadership & Change’ http://osca.co/wp-content/uplo... (see page 70/71).

    Presumably growth towards the stabilisation of more ‘spiritual’ modes would have even deeper positive effects on the individuals themselves, and their contributions to society. (Researchers including Susanne Cook-Greuter have found that the emerging, later stages of adult development become
    increasingly ‘spiritual’ in their characteristics).


    Interestingly, it is possible to get a sneak preview/glimpse of the kind of experience that a veteran Zen meditator might have after decades - by using Genpo Dennis Merzel Roshi’s ‘Big Mind’ process: http://bigmind.org/. I suspect the RSA isn’t quite experimental enough to offer that kind of experiential process to an audience as yet - and the more cerebral of us might struggle to let go of our stream of cognitive associations for
    long enough to play at this exercise (which is drawn from a merger of Jungian voice work/Gestalt/Zen). I was first showed the ‘Big Mind’ practice by a friend - in the space of a couple of minutes, in a Thai restaurant! (It largely worked - a definite glimpse).

    Interestingly, there was - briefly - a regular Mindfulness session for staff here are the RSA, but it stopped when the temporary staff member who ran it left. As I mentioned here recently, I’m wondering whether it needs to be re-started, but have more than enough more pressing tasks to get on with, so haven’t quite grappled with it...


    A topic I hope gets mentioned at some point in the RSA series is how spirituality might play out in the real world of the workplace (perhaps the last place we tend to look for ‘spirituality’?).

    Lynne Sedgemore CBE FRSA might be a great speaker on this topic - as her ‘spiritual’ (as well as Kegan/Torbert-inspired) worldview enabled her to create a passionate, innovative and collaborative workplace. Her Centre for Excellence in Leadership (training org for FE sector) was the second UK winner of the ’Spirituality in the Workplace’ award, after the
    Body Shop.

    I think hearing from Lynne would take us way beyond ‘spirituality’ as some kind of New Age woo-woo, and beyond spirituality interpreted by (reductionistic?) science, towards spirituality as a real-world activity. Interesting!

    Even if we all find plenty to disagree with, in that approach… ;-)

    I wrote a short case study about Lynne as a post-heroic leader in the AntiHero report: http://osca.co/wp-content/uplo... (see page: 98-100).

    Here’s a paper about Lynne’s organisation: ‘Maximizing the Triple Bottom Line & Spiritual Leadership: The CEL Story’ - http://iispiritualleadership.c...

    Any thoughts? How might ‘spirituality’ usefully relate to RSA agendas?

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager) -

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