An increasing number of people worldwide describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Nick Jankel FRSA asks why, with so many striving to deliver greater social justice, is being actively and purposefully spiritual still such a heresy?
Over half of Canadian teenagers openly say they have spiritual needs, whilst only 15% of Americans say that they are neither spiritual nor religious. Over 75% of Brits claim that they are aware of a spiritual dimension to experience (a rise of 27% in 13 years); about 70% sit within a grey area between being religious and anti-religious. So why do so many of us hide away our spiritual contemplations, intuitions and convictions?
I believe it is because being openly spiritual is last great social taboo. You’re sitting in a meeting or down the pub. You slip up and mention the ’s’ word. As you do, you catch that look in people’s eyes. You have been condemned as an intellectual heretic or nice, but dumb, hippy. You dared come out of the spiritual closet for a moment and you paid a heavy price. I am sure that I have lost clients, funding, TV and book deals and press columns because I have emphatically said that I am spiritual and that my work is influenced by love. We would not tolerate this kind of prejudice in any other sphere of life. So why is designing projects and policies grounded in connection and compassion still so frowned upon?
The costs are considerable. With so many afraid to come out of the spiritual closet, our businesses, political parties and government departments are robbed of the greatest source of positive change and powerful decision-making on the planet: The empathy and creativity that emanate naturally from a human heart that feels connected. Although words tend to rob us of its ineffability, we might describe spirituality as experiencing, inquiring into and acting from a sense connection (or love, if we’re really being direct). Around this, other ideas may arise, which may or may not scale up into religiosity. However, as one participant in a research study said, “religion is to spirituality as Interflora is to a bluebell in a wood.”
Without some kind of spirituality, whether secular or religious, we rely on addictions to mask the suffering that is inevitable when we remain disconnected. Our addictions (whether to alcohol, drugs, cheap credit and energy or unsustainable growth) are designed to relieve that suffering; but end up destroying everything. The great news is that every human being alive can hack this disconnect by looking within. There is no need for God. No need for angel cards. No need to smell like patchouli oil or even to do yoga. In fact, there is no need for any New Age nonsense. All we need to live a profoundly spiritual life is the simple, but unexpectedly life-changing experience, of feeling interconnected; and so no longer alienated and afraid.
Once we embody and embed this spirituality, we naturally want to transform our careers, our consumption habits and our business models to maximise human thriving. And we do not need regulation or activism to get us into action. It was this secret that Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr all discovered on their own expressly spiritual journeys. Most intellectuals and activists conveniently forget this when they use them as exemplars of great leadership.
To enjoy this power to consciously create, we must first let go of the defensive cynicism and intellectual arrogance that lie at the heart of ‘intelligent' society. On my journey from Cambridge-educated scientist to wisdom teacher and heart-led entrepreneur, I first had to relinquish all my prejudices. As I detail in my book Switch On, along the way, I discovered that we do not need to be religious or New Age to be profoundly spiritual. We can be both spiritual and secular, loving both rational science, (with our minds) and intuitive spirituality (felt in the whole body) as long as we do not use science as an excuse to be dogmatic or cynical or use spirituality as an excuse to be superstitious or flaky. As I explain in a talk at Aspen Ideas Festival, secular spirituality is aligned with modern science because they describe two aspects of the same reality.
Science has been massively successful at understanding physical reality. Yet it is now telling us that depression is now the number one burden on global health (it was fourth in 1990). Millennials are diagnosed twice as much as Baby Boomers.
Suicide is the main cause of death amongst young men in the US and UK. This year, it will kill more than HIV / AIDS, road accidents and heart disease. However, an active spiritual practice can be 80% protective in families that are otherwise at very high risk for depression. And having an abiding sense of purpose increases cellular health and decreases post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Alzheimer's.
After a series of spectacular breakdowns and burnouts, I realised that if science had all the answers, as a scientist I should have no need for such suffering. The only other choice was to realise that science has some of the answers; and that our hearts have others. Science can tell us that living with purpose, connection and love is effective. But only heartfelt wisdom, whether we call it spiritual or not, can tell us how to have and hold on to these most powerful experiences; and then act on them in everyday life.
So rather than cower behind the closet door, those of us who believe in the power of spirituality need to break this last great taboo. Together, we can bring more heart into every enterprise and ground every project in love. Then, and only then, will we get to see the world that we all yearn for, where everyone is free to thrive not just the lucky few. We are the ones we have been waiting for: Change-agents that can confidently bring more love, truth and creativity into every area of public life without shame or superstition.