Can spirituality inform public policy? Yes, no, and maybe - RSA

Can spirituality inform public policy? Yes, no, and maybe.

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  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

If spirit is a name for the resistant and transcending faculties of the agent, we can spiritualize society. We can diminish the distance between who we are and what we find outside of ourselves. - Roberto Unger, The Self Awakened p38.

A few months ago I wrote an extended post about the relationship between the spiritual and the political. The pied piper of our generation, Russell Brand, momentarily adopted it as part of his 'revolution in consciousness', tweeted approvingly to his millions, and thousands followed his tune to our website. Happy days.

The political dimension of spirituality is exciting because it's 'the vision thing', it's about being human, about who we are and what we care about. It's depth and values and hope and how it all fits together. Moreover, as noted above, it is intellectually safe terrain because even heavyweight philosophers like Roberto Unger take it seriously.

The elusive place where the spiritual meets the political is perhaps the experience of life many of us are looking for; a place where the possibilities for your own power and place in the world make sense. When you are living in that place, life tends to be much more rewarding. For instance, I was heavily involved in Scotland's recent referendum and campaigning felt distinctly spiritual, a way of connecting identity with meaning and purpose. There was an intense feeling of aliveness for many weeks, which is, etymologically at least, close to the heart of the spiritual.

(Sir Humphrey - The archetypal 'policymaker' ?)

But what about the lesser known bespectacled younger brother of Politics called Policy? Their fraternal relationship is complex, challenging, important, and rapidly changing in confounding ways, but does spirituality have anything to offer particular policy issues like health and education? What of the measurements, the details, the budgets, the rules and norms - does spirituality have anything to say about the practice of statecraft?

Here are three potential answers that we may examine in more depth at an RSA workshop tomorrow as our project winds towards a conclusion.

1) Yes! (Of course, spirituality is relevant to all sorts of policy issues)

As I wrote before our first public event in this series, spirituality has a great deal of relevance to the major policy issues of our day because it informs them in direct substantive ways. For example:

As our education team indicated in Schools with Soul, there's an appetite to better understand what it means for schools not merely to teach spirituality as substantive knowledge like RE, but to 'do' spirituality in a way to honours experience, the sacred, deeper currents of meaning and so forth. There are also significant bodies of research on spirituality in nursing  and in psychiatry and numerous other domains where the relationship between spirituality and policy needs to better understood and appreciated. Moreover, as Iain McGilchrist indicated in his talk at the RSA, in some ways mental health is really about looking after the soul.

Spirituality can also serve to deepen the debate about the measurement of subjective wellbeing, and challenge the cultural hegemony of 'happiness', by focussing instead on upholding certain commitments and ideals about the good life, including a normative vision of human development- what it means for us to grow. 

For instance, in their wonderful book How Much is Enough?  (in the penultimate paragraph!) the Skidelskys drop a bombshell: "Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to pursuit of the common good? We doubt it." (p218). So could we imagine a 'human flourishing index' that contained meaningful qualitative elements, or at least some good proxies for ideas of spiritual growth? (This unlikely hope reminds me of my prior critique of the missing theory of human development in The Big Society.)

 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.

There has been a strong behavioural turn in public policy that tends to be very informed about empirical accounts of human behaviour in general, but completely unaware of the ways in which humans can fundamentally change and develop through spiritual practice. For instance, 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’. 

Similarly, in last Summer's 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.”I'm not saying he's strictly wrong, but I 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.

2)No! (If you're even thinking about policy applications you misunderstand the nature of the spiritual)

Some have argued that spirituality and policy are like oil and water - they are not supposed to mix. For instance, consider Zen Priest Norman Fischer giving a commencement address at Stanford, adamant that spiritual practice must be "Useless, absolutely useless":

"You've been doing lots of good things for lots of good reasons for a long time now," he said, "for your physical health, your psychological health, your emotional health, for your family life, for your future success, for your economic life, for your community, for your world. But a spiritual practice is useless. It doesn't address any of those concerns. It's a practice that we do to touch our lives beyond all concerns – to reach beyond our lives to their source."

This sentiment is echoed by Iain McGilchrist, partly in his talk on the soul at the RSA, but also in an earlier workshop. Just as we don't ask of people "What's he/she for?" Nor should we approach spirituality in the spirit of its use value.

On this account, the very nature of spirituality is antitethical to policy because it is not utilitarian, and calls the whole utilitarian philosophy that underpins most policy into question.

There is a spectrum of human consciousness and it manifests all the way from the emotional and the psychological to the moral and the social and the political and economic; all the way along to what we think we know about 'policy'.

3)Perhaps!? (Spirituality and policy may have an unsuspected reflexive relationship).

You may have noticed that I haven't defined spirituality here yet. I have addressed that issue in various places, for instance here, but I currently have a great deal of sympathy with Jungian Analyst and Professor Andrew Samuels here when he suggests that some degree of tolerable vagueness is important, especially on this subject:

"There is something important about staying in the vague for as long as it takes. There are obviously dangers of vagueness but I think that spirituality may not be as dangerous a topic when it is regarded in a vague way as some others because, after all, spirituality has always been something that deconstructs our lives. Long before postmodernism was invented, the spirit was deconstructing daily reality in culture. Hence it is not a problem for me that I am vague about what I mean, or what anyone means by spirituality."

But how can something inherently vague or contested or even nebulous speak to something as apparent hard edged and technocratic as 'policy'? Well partly because the idea of 'policy', like spirituality, turns out to be surprisingly vague too.

Whether it's the power to create, or cultural theory, or the end of power, or digital policymaking, or co-production, or I-teams, or globalization, or systems failure, or wicked problems, or open policy making or something else entirely, the vision of policy-making as centralised experts giving impartial and informed advice to political masters who then turn that into legislation that is then diligently and seamlessly delivered is somewhere between dying and dead. Whatever policy is, it's not about Sir Humphrey's power any more.

In my time working at the RSA I have met lots of 'policymakers' working in Whitehall who seem disillusioned, usually because of the disconnect between their idea of government as a reasonable place where intelligence or even wisdom might prevail, and the reality, which is more about petty political struggles, responding to perpetual events, and frustrating diffusions of power that mean things are often started but rarely finished. As former government advisor Dominic Cummings put it, the operating principle of Whitehall is currently 'obedience to process' and 'there is always a sense of crisis, but never any urgency'.

The third way on spirituality and policy is to view it as a reflexive relationship, like two single people who are lost, and hope to find themselves through each other. This sounds far fetched at first blush, but less so when you realise that many policy gurus, including our own Matthew Taylor, argue that what Government is now about is intelligent mechanisms for social and cultural mobilisation rather than merely law making.

"The point here is not that we don’t need policy, nor that it isn’t better to have good policies than bad ones, but that we need to think of policy as fuel for a strategy of social renewal, not the engine of that renewal." 

So let's think about the engine. Policy is less about Governments doing things, and more about them enabling us to do things; it's about the social productivity and civic engagement that most complex policy problems now call for. In this respect people are motivated by their ideals and their feelings and their vision of being part of something bigger than themselves. In this sense, people 'get involved' for reasons that might be deemed spiritual. So when we find that mindfulness practice changes our attitudes and behaviours that are beneficial to the environment, why is that not 'policy'?

Consider Andrew Samuels again:

"In social spirituality, people come together to take responsible action in the social sphere, doing this in concert with other people. When this happens, something spiritual comes into being. Being actively engaged in a social, political, cultural or ethical issue, together with others, initiates the spiritual. This is a very different perspective from one that would see social spirituality as being something done in the social domain by spiritual people. To the contrary, there is a kind of spiritual rain that can descend on people who get involved in politics and social issues with others - hence ‘social’ spirituality - in a certain kind of way. I call this rain ‘responsibility’."

So this third perspective on the relationship between spirituality and policy is worth taking seriously, and might be the most promising way to think about the policy relevance of the spiritual. There is a spectrum of human consciousness and it manifests all the way from the emotional and the psychological to the moral and the social and the political and economic; all the way along to what we think we know about 'policy'.

At every stage of that spectrum there could be an ongoing spirit of inquiry informed by reflexive intelligence, by a presence of mind and heart that reminds you of the soul. And when you have that, and you look at 'policy' deeply and patiently enough, you can sense that it's all the same stuff; the graphs and the grace, the spirit and the stats, the measurements and the meaning. The same but different, all the way through. And it may all be changing, but constantly so. You might even say it's all one. And if that's not 'spiritual', I don't know what is.


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  • There’s a vital missing piece of the jigsaw in all this.

    Whilst many of us will enthusiastically espouse our support
    for big policy transformations – eg a shift from top-down to systems-aware
    policies – it turns that most of people don’t dare to take the risk of actually
    trying to implement any of this great stuff we believe we like!

    According to Prof Jake Chapman (author of ‘Systems Failure’),
    it turns out that the tiny minority who do actually experiment with making
    these changes have something in common: they all have less common, post-conventional ‘action logics’ (or put another way, they are found to show later, more complex stages of adult psychological growth).

    It interviewing people for the RSA/Clore Anti-Hero report on post-heroic leadership, I heard a common lament that most such post-conventional people tend to leave big organisations, or get pushed out (the ‘spiritual’ HE sector leader Lynne Sedgmore CBE FRSA felt that she was one of the few who managed to stay inside!). The singular goal of ‘obedience to
    process’ you mention presumably doesn’t sit well with the creativity of a
    post-conventional mind. The very people that organisations particularly need more of – in order to creatively transform and thrive into the future – are no longer there. Though process efficiency may be nicely up! ;-)

  • I'm starting to really loathe this word "spiritual". It is the archetypal Humpty Dumpty word: it means exactly what the writer wants it to mean, neither more or less.

    Alice's response is to ask ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ And Humpty Dumpty's reply is telling.

    ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

    In this sense I agree that spiritual is political - it's about dominating the argument over values - what we value, but find hard to articulate is called "spiritual" or "sacred" depending on how much we value it and how inarticulate we are.

    Policy should reflect our values. That's it really, isn't it? It's not really about spirituality at all, it's just a woolly ways of talking about what we value - and can even incorporate nationalism or power struggles. Labelling one's own values as "spiritual" or "sacred" simply serves to insulate them from interrogation - either in the form of introspection or extrospection. The label "spiritual" is an attempt to hyper-valorise what we transparently and unquestioningly feel to be of value.

    " And if that’s not ‘spiritual’, I don’t know what is."

    On reading this I'd say you don't know. But then you're not alone because no one seems to know.

  • you play a dangerous game.

    mixing the political , sociological and religious language is such a way does nothing to help anyone.

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