RSA Event: Love, Death, Self, and Soul - RSA

RSA Event: Love, Death, Self, and Soul

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  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

Last night’s RSA event examined a profound yet largely unexplored possibility in the 21st century: integrating a modern preconception of spirituality (grounded in an increasingly sophisticated understanding of human nature) into the public realm.

Four speakers – Dr. Jonathan Rowson, director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre; Claire Foster-Gilbert, founder and director of the Westminster Abbey Institute; Dr. Andrew Samuels, psychotherapist and author of Politics on the Couch; and Marina Benjamin, author and senior editor of Aeon magazine – presented moving explorations of what it might mean to introduce post-religious spirituality into public life. I invite you to watch the full video of the event above, and/or browse highlight quotes illustrating their fascinating perspectives on spirituality and society below:

Dr. Jonathan Rowson

  • The spiritual is broadly [about] 3 questions: what are we, how should we live, and why are we here? And we are beginning to understand [the first question] better, not just from 3rd person scientific perspectives, but from 1st person perspectives as well.


  • Most of the time in this project, when something happened that was meaningful, there was a very deep felt sense, sometimes find yourself really hanging on a word, and it was usually when people spoke from personal experience.


  • The spiritual injunction to "wake up" is grounded in an increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding that we are not only creatures of habit, but habit-forming creatures.


Claire Foster-Gilbert

  • It’s obviously the people, [the] institutions, it’s in the air… this huge longing for depth, for the chance to think about what it is that we’re trying to do as public servants.


  • If I didn’t have 1000 years of Benedictine spirituality to draw on, I would be nothing. I simply couldn’t do it. So what I really want to say is… don’t give up on the old religions. We need them, we need their story, we need their history, we need all the mistakes that they’ve made over the millennia. All the recognitions of the dangers of spirituality.


Professor Andrew Samuels

  • If you change only the material conditions, if you change only the constitutional and legal frameworks, then you can’t refresh the parts that the spiritual bit can refresh. You have to do both, one isn’t more important than the other. Becoming individuated is not more important than the revolution, and vice versa.


Marina Benjamin

  • One of the reasons why religions survived, down the millennia, is because they are themselves post-religious. They change and adapt to the circumstances that we find ourselves in as humans. We make them, we reshape them to our needs, they adapt in time.


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  • Hi Matthew, I might be interested in coming along to that event - can you post a working link please? Thanks


    Hi Andres and Jonathan,

    Thanks for putting together an enjoyable event.

    (NB There's a free January event organised by the Fellows' Spirituality Network, with Lynne Sedgmore CBE FRSA titled 'A Conversation: Exploring, Leading and Living Spirituality in the Workplace - a personal and professional journey of spirit and work'. It should be great fun; you can sign up here:

    I can't help feeling that the crucial grounding we mustn't lose if all this is to really go somewhere, is to be connected to something 'real', is the 'waking up' you talk about.

    And not just as something that 3rd-person science is belatedly getting round to validating.

    No, we really need each of us to be able to know - to feel - when we are truly present, when we are mindful (rather than mindless), embodied, rather than just on our usual auto-pilot of associative thinking and responses. If I remember correctly you dubbed it our 'stupor'…!

    I have a growing feeling that this Mindfulness/presence is also somehow rather vital to realising the RSA's new vision of 'the Power to Create'.

    It's only people who are fully present and open who are likely to see situations well (including our biggest challenges), and can grasp the real opportunities that there are. Most of us, most of the time, are instead paying attention to a narrow fraction of what's really going on, and mostly pulling our experience from our memory, from research in the past etc.

    As Prof Bill Torbert put when I interviewed him for the Anti-Hero report on leadership: most conventional leaders are not transformational,"they don’t ever seek evidence for what to do from the present interaction, one of the most fundamental norms of conventional intercourse is you don't talk about what’s actually going on in the event or the meeting or the conversation itself."

    "That makes it incapable of generating new evidence, it can look like crazy at evidence from past reports and past scientific studies but it hasn't yet developed the capacities to deliver a new…, what’s occurring among the people who are present at the time and to do that requires collaborative practice and so far, most developmental leaders and schemers have not been collaborative in orientation, they’ve been quite unilateral in orientation".

    So, present-centred awareness is vital, and clearly also plenty of use of collaborative practices - without them apparently we just end up with spiritual folks, spiritual leaders, who are just as disempoweringly closed and unilateral as everyone else ;-)

    As I've suggested, you could easily make the RSA Spirituality project's final report itself an actual tool - a prompt - for present-centred mindfulness by including in a footnote a very basic instruction on how to come to your senses, feel your body, be mindful/present. Then intersperse the text with occasional prompts to stop/wake up/be present - perhaps using a little phrase like 'the bell is ringing'.

    I figure giving over a teeny fraction of the report's text to actually prompting people to wake up would help normalise mindfulness.

    And - more crucially than anything else - remind us all that thinking about it, reading about it, writing about it, is a world away from actually breaking our habit of 'sleep' and making the effort to come to our senses and be present: to actually 'wake up'.

    Matthew Mezey FRSA

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