The Spiritual and the Political: Beyond Russell Brand

Blog 26 Comments

  • Social brain
  • Spirituality


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 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.


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


Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • First of all, I'm grateful for your time and expertise - it's great to have a considered critique rather than just a casual dismissal of the issue and argument.
    On 'religious position', I was merely referring to you coming from a broadly Buddhist perspective; nothing more precise or pejorative.
    On Etymology - I would say there is no final verdict there and we could easily swap sources to support competing positions, but if you take 'animating principle' into the 21st century I don't think you need to (even if you could) get supernatural at all!
    In any case seeking to resolve things too definitively with etymology looks like pedantry - my point in highlighting the link to breath, prana, aliveness and so forth was just that you haven't shown that an interest or valuing of the spiritual is concomitant with a belief in ontological dualism. If you really think you have, and that the choice is between that, and conceptual incoherence in speaking of the spiritual, then we just have to agree to disagree, but in either case I'm happy for you to have the last word!...

  • I didn't know the word 'nixed', so thanks, but no, I suspect it was just a delay- no nixing on this side...

  • Seems my reply to this got nixed. Not sure how to take that. You want the last word?

  • Let me deal with the etymological argument first. The meaning "of or concerning the church" is attested from mid-14C. The root meaning is related to "breath, breathing" (= Latin 'spirare'; cf Sanskrit 'prāṇa'). In fact the meaning that I am proposing is attested from a century earlier: Mid-13C., "animating or vital principle in man and animals". The meaning "supernatural immaterial creature; angel, demon; an apparition, invisible corporeal being of an airy nature" is also attested from mid-14c. So it seems to me that etymology supports my approach to the word better than it supports yours.

    As for the other argument you are highlighting, it is difficult to engage with because of the way you frame it. For a start it conflates categories in such a way as to confuse and confound analysis - I presume this is deliberate? But there is no need to conflate categories like "our sense of the sacred" or "the value of compassion." Indeed we can pick apart the unhelpful conflations and say that on one hand you have concepts that rely on precisely the definition I'm proposing, i.e. "our sense of the sacred", "the experience of transcendence", the "hunger for transformation". These are concepts which rely on the spirit/matter distinction and valorise spirit.

    Another category involves: "our search for meaning" and the "value of compassion". People who reject any concept of the spiritual are still concerned with meaning and compassion. They are not inherently "spiritual" concerns, though they can be when yoked to "spirit". For example many religious people find meaning in a parasocial relationship with a putative supernatural being. But Humanists do not associate these concerns with the supernatural. Compassion is simly an ethical concern for example.

    Categories help us to understand our world by structuring our observations on experience. Purposefully hobbling our reason by choosing incoherent categories is irrational. Of course after Romanticism this approach is common - indeed the approach is more Romantic than "spiritual". And this anti-intellectual trend is deeply embedded in "spiritual" discourses. But I remain to be convinced that constructing incoherent categories is helpful. Particularly when we can easily clarify the situation by the application of reason.

    You are engaged in metaphysics and thus I'm puzzled that my metaphysical critique seems to be out of bounds. So, yes we are talking at cross purposes. Of course history shows that systematic thinking and clear categories tend to undermine spirituality. I'm still not clear how the adjective "spiritual" helps us to think clearly about our problems and I am clear how it confuses us.

    I'm still intrigued by your reference to my "religious position".

  • I think his point might be that there are 85 people in the world that have as much wealth as the rest of it, such concentrated wealth means that governments act on behalf of corporations rather than people, individuals rights are barely even existent, and voting has now become somewhat irrelevant because there is a shift in politics.Governments no longer have control or power over corporations therefore no matter who you vote for you are voting for a corporation that has no obligation to the well being of a politicians electorate. Democracy has become a farce, that I think may have been his intended message. A revolution against the REAL people in power.

Related articles

  • Bob’s Big Idea: why we are living longer

    Jonathan Rowson

    “♫ I was 21 years when I wrote this song. I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long. Time hurries on, and the years that were green, turn to brown ♫”

  • Quote Bait: Twenty thoughts on spirituality

    Jonathan Rowson

    Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges deals with a weighty subject and the overall process of producing the report involved about 300 people over two years, so it’s not surprising the final report is relatively long – about 40,000 words over 92 pages; it’s half a book really. (Now there’s a thought…)

  • What is 'the soul' and why does it matter?

    Jonathan Rowson

    The following transcription came from a speech that formed part of a series of six public events within RSA Social Brain Centre's project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. The final report of this project, outlined here will be published later this month.