Come Out of The Spiritual Closet - RSA

Blog: Come out of the spiritual closet

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  • Spirituality

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.

Nick Seneca Jankel is the author of the best-selling book Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity and Thrive, a wisdom teacher, CEO of leadership consultancy WECREATE and founder of Ripe and Ready.

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  • Max Weber showed that Protestantism ( a religious form of spirituality) was associated with the development of capitalism in the West. You are right that sprituality, for those that have it, is an underutilized resource in human interaction. A common spiritual belief  is the bedrock of trust, and enhanced trust in business situations reduces transaction costs, improves network efficiencies, bolsters social capital and provides new business opportunities. We have a glorious network in the FRSA for this, but we need trust among members to make it work better on a wider scale, and the vehicle to provide trust ( even among those who have not physically met) is a common spiritual belief.      

  • I am currently involved in an interpretivist research degree exploring Christian anthropology examining the historical influence of Christian religion/spirituality on developing our welfare systems in the UK over the centuries and developing our liberal democracies. There is a distinct difference between religion and spirituality, in my opinion, which is a phenomenon worked out by an individuals particular understanding of life when it comes to personal conviction and worldview. I agree about 'spirituality' being the final taboo and we need a conversation especially within the RSA which is a dialectic discussion built upon respect and not PC tolerance which often suppresses discussion in terms of too much heat and not enough light. Western liberal democracy was built through the influence of the Christian Reformation and Enlightenment and it was a very complicated process which can only be understood through the convictions and motivations of those involved. We need to tell and hear each others stories and I can't think of a better forum that the RSA. Even some of the academic secular theorists are now reviewing the theory since we are facing a religious phenomenon globally. Secularisation can be a faith system in its own right and must ensure within our liberal democracies that all voices are respected in terms of freedom of speech and conscience. I live in Plymouth and our city is aware of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower which in itself was an event encouraged through political/religious conflict at the time between non-conformist thinking and Establish church. Great discussion and thanks to Scott Gould for making me aware of it.

    • very interesting.... the philosophy of science is replete with breakthroughs inspired by or driven through mystical spirituality and / or traditional religion

      i would LOVE the RSA to be a space for open-hearted conversation about what it means to live with an open, vulnerable, loving heart. lets hope Matthew and team can facilitate this

  • Gracefully articulated, but how do we take people across that bridge from what is to what could/should be.

    • thank you nick. that is indeed my life's work. I run a consultancy that brings connection into big business and government through the guise of innovation and leadership work. that is how i attempt to create phase transition in the power structures of the system. fun. and I run an online platform which is about taking the new age packaging away from spirituality and providing tools and apps for millenials etc to engage and transform. 

      that said, we can all do this by sharing our spiritual intuitions in a grounded way with our friends and colleagues - giving them permission to open up to that... whilst demonstrating what living from connection / love looks like as an individual and as a leader making "better" decisions in organisations from this place


      • Fascinating. I did an MSc in organisational change at Ashridge in 2012 which took me partially into this space, along with some time at Schumacher here in Devon. Right now I am in conversation with Embercombe, which I expect is on your radar, and developing some work on Teal organisations, where wholeness has relevance to what you are doing. My domain is mainly public sector but taking anything into that arena at the moment is quite a challenge. 

    • Nick I hope to run something in the future that can facilitate such conversations in very accessibly, non threatening ways.

      Nick Jankel: Are you aware of any such organisations that do this already?

      • Yes. I run two myself ;)

        And we are also developing a number of networks for this... one for "wisdom teachers" (whatever that means) through; and the other at the systemic change level via a wisdom leaders congress. ping me if you want to know more.

        • Thanks Nick! Am checking your website out.

  • What we have is a clash between two formsof fundamentalism. Scientific fundamentalism believes that the world and theuniverse are made of matter and that this is the only “true” reality. If thisis the case then, to quote from a recent opinion piece in the New York Times: “Faith would steadily giveway to the scientific method as humanity converged on an ever betterunderstanding of what was real.” From this positivist perspective scientificknowledge is the only valid form of knowledge and the only source of authority.Religious fundamentalism, on the other hand, believes in the literal truth of sacredtexts and that the only source of authority is “God” – a magical being, whodwells outside of space and time and, according to some, controls everythingthat happens in space and time. Each of these fundamentalisms is highlycritical of the other, but there is no way of resolving their differences usingcriteria acceptable to each side.

    One reasonable way of resolving this is through the anti-fundamentalist philosophyof pragmatism.  From this perspectiveboth evidence and faith are valid ways of knowing but neither is sufficientalone; each has its own role to play. It’s an “ecological” philosophy of“both…and”. Philosophical pragmatism is agnostic about what is “real”, arguingthat there may be something “real” “out there”, but we humans can’t conceive ofit outside culture and language. Culture and language are evolutionary productsthat allow us to create a world of significance, a world made, not of matter, butof “what matters” to our survival. In a world of “what matters” scientificexplanations are not enough. We need to make meaning, to answer the existentialquestions: Who are we? Why do we matter? What’s our mission?

    Scienceis about taking things apart and finding explanations and faith is aboutputting things together and making meaning. The confusion arises when weconfound these roles and try to find meaning in science and to get explanationsfrom faith. 

    There is no ultimate authority and we need both forms of inquiry. There is no 'them'; there is only 'us'. 

    • Hi David - I would also like to suggest that the experiential aspect of faith has been the most enduring as Callum G Brown proposes in terms of 'bottom up history' in his book The death of Christian Britain. Holman Hunt's 'the light of the world' depicts Christ standing at the door surrounded by thorns (representing the spiritual heart of man), but without a handle on the outside. the artist suggesting that it is only the individual who can open up to Christian spirituality by opening the door from within in response to 'the knock at the door. I see that as an aspect of genuine human emancipation. You need your own     free will to make the decision to respond to the knock at the door.Image result for the light of the world painting

      • A lovely image! Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy talks about this same enduring experience that has been expressed in so many different ways

    • hi david. totally agree on both /and thinking. however, i would passionately invite us all not to conflate religion / faith with lived, experienced, spirituality. some religion has spirituality within it. lots does not. my spiritual conviction are not from sacred texts, priests or God - unless we are talking about the still small voice of intuitive calm that emerges when I still my mind and heal my heart and allow whatever is seeking to emerge to emerge...

      then we get what i call secular spirituality, utterly science-driven but not limited to what the observer/subject methodology of science can study... and a science that is permeated with love, in the form of purpose, that guides research topics and the leadership practices of running a lab where people thrive...

      • Absolutely - it's all about practice. One of the most interesting exponents of it were the Quakers of the 17th and 18th centuries who, together with other Nonconformists, played such a major role in the First Industrial Revolution. They were the least dogmatic of all the Christian sects, rejecting all authority (all the Old Testament and most of the New) except that of the spirit. Their practice at their meetings (which, hard to believe, were the forerunners of today's corporate quarterly meetings) was designed to encourage people to speak to their concerns - some meetings could be silent for hours!. See a blog on this.

        • brilliant. i am doing a talk on "bringing more love into business" in san francisco in a couple months and i am just looking aid!t what i can do to bring this idea in gently yet powerfully. and this little slice of cultural history is PERFECT!. thank you dav

          • Yes, it is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale about what I think is analogous to a dynamic ecological process. As John Wesley put it:

            "Ifear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) theessence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the sameproportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things,for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion mustnecessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produceriches. But as riches increase, so will pride, and anger, and love of the worldin all its branches."

    • Hi David

      A lovely response to this article.

      I too have ironically found the militant atheism too like the fundamentalist Christianity that it espouses.

      The middle ground - one of acceptance, and of an acceptance of the varying forms of knowledge and experience - is vital to stand in.

      • Thanks Scott, I agree - with one exception - I don't believe that you can "stand" and hope to stay in the middle ground. You have to move to stay there. The weasel word is 'balance' but of what kind? A speaker at the Drucker Forum in Vienna last week described it as a 'ballerina balance'. It reminded me of 'poised at the still point of the turning world' as Eliot put it. More generally I think of it as an ecological balance - freedom through discipline

        • hi David

          Very good.

          My story is that at, as a former minister, I'm currently on a journey of trying to figure things out.

          A friend said to me that rather than trying to arrive at a destination, to embrace status as a "pilgrim": one who is living in the best light they have so far, but is always searching for more, is open to receive from others, and knows that they are probably wrong about a range of things!

          I guess you could correlate the pilgrim metaphor with the balancing ballerina!

          • Absolutely! The journey is all. Eliot again: In our end is our beginning...Fare forward, voyagers

  • Nowadays there is a huge confusion between religion and spirituality, and a complete ignorance due to a lack of such knowledge in education. Imagine if most of the people mistook a bank for the money in it: wouldn't you be horrified, in disbelief? How can one not understand that a bank is just a temporary container with a brand like many others, whereas money is the contents and is everybody's and runs through everybody's accounts and pockets? In the same way I am in disbelief every time a campaigning atheist throws away religion with all the spirituality in it, including his own - but only until they have a major crisis, then he is back to square one again.

    • love your bank metaphor! lets lose the banks and enjoy peer-to-peer lending and spending instead ;)

      part of our mission with is to develop tools, apps and media for young people to educate them on how to find within their own spirituality... and how to let it guide them

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