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All beings tremble before violence.

Afghan man giving tea to a U.S. soldier

All beings tremble before violence.

All fear death. All love life.

See yourself in others.

Then whom can you hurt?

What harm can you do?

--- Buddha, Dhammapada 129-130



An Unfamiliar Skill

It seems safe to say now, at this point in the 21st century, that there is more to life than we can see. The reality each of us experiences on a daily basis is quite assuredly our own “personal take” on what reality actually is. Read any recent popular psychology book (e.g., this one) and observe the large range of mental filters we unknowingly apply to our experience of life, day in and day out. The end result is that we don’t see things as they really are, we see them as we are[1]. Curiously, our bodies and brains are born predisposed to grow two things (1) a personal take on the world and ourselves, and (2) the rather unfamiliar capacity to move beyond it. Many humans have referred to this latter capacity as spirituality.

Stories, dogmas, supernatural beliefs, or other such adornments are unnecessary to identify and/or acknowledge this capacity. We have it, period, regardless of intelligence, culture, beliefs, wealth, success, social class, etc. Spirituality is a natural phenomenon that we humans share, somewhat comparable to our capacities for thinking, feeling, dreaming, loving, and being creative. It’s "in our blood," so to speak. And like these other capacities, there is  nothing mystical or unnatural about spirituality. If anything, it has simply passed through modern societies inconspicuously, largely undetected, and in relative silence. Our collective lack of awareness and understanding of spirituality has minimized the number of people able to develop, identify, or even perceive their own capacity for the spiritual. But it’s there, within each of us, slumbering.

Religions have served partly as vehicles, and partly as champions, for spirituality throughout history – carrying it into the homes, hearts, and consciousnesses of billions and more. Rumi was one of many who acknowledged this common function among religions, “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery,” and Einstein saw it too, “...striving to free Tracy Dyson, astronaut, looking down on Earthoneself from this delusion [of separateness] is the one issue of true religion.” So there is little new under the sun here, apart from the easily-forgotten fact that we all wonder, we all strive, however different our ways for doing so may seem.

Blurring our Boundaries

Religions have done relatively well, in my opinion, in consistently reminding us that we have a spiritual capacity to develop. But paradoxically, religions have done poorly in exemplifying the unity and interconnectedness that emerges out of extensive spiritual development. Caring for the poor and troubled can be a wonderful expression of compassion and kinship for our fellow humans, but simultaneously despising or excluding others due to their different sexual orientation, ideology, or gender (or anything else) is antithetical to the insights gleaned from advanced (or even moderate) stages of spiritual development. That most religions intentionally or unintentionally prioritize ideological development over spiritual development is, in my view, their greatest flaw. Ideologies breed divisiveness, rather than unity, which sheds greater doubt over the suitability of religions as universal vehicles for spirituality in our modern age. Our collective tolerance for divisiveness diminishes even further in the face of globalization, frequent travel, the internet, etc. In sum, human unity is something that we can’t continue half-assing this late in the game.

Our need for the insights that spiritual development holds is perhaps greater today than it’s ever been, and continuing to exclude certain humans or to construct imaginary divisions between us simply makes spiritual development a more difficult task. Pressure is increasing from the outside world too. The threats we humans face are no longer confined to national boundaries or ideological disagreements. Global warming, Ebola, inequality, water security, etc., are species-wide threats that pertain to us all – to our very survival, no less. A concerted human effort is required against these odds but we are not yet concerted. Religion concerts some and excludes others, but spirituality can potentially concert us all. Indeed, it may be one of the few (or only) things that can, but we have to tune into it, Dalai Lama's message to move beyond religionlend it our ears, and meet its gaze, fully. We may then discover what a multitude of humans have hinted at for ages both in and out of religions: that a deeper fundamental connection exists underneath us, linking us in ways we cannot perceive without rigorous development and acute sensitization.

A Human Way to Grow

I lay out no guidelines in this blog, no rules to follow, nothing to believe on insufficient evidence, no recommended gods to fear, worship, or love. I simply suggest that spirituality is a common human capacity that can be developed; and once developed, could be truly useful in the face of current global challenges (not to mention its benefits to our sanity, happiness, and wellbeing). Religions have been helpful (at times) and will still serve as useful repositories of spiritual knowledge going forward, but – simply put – religions don’t scale well. Their intrinsic divisiveness prevents them from doing so, especially in the cultural, ethnic, and ideological pluralism in which we live. I am not advocating for no religion – we won’t go far if any of us are excluded – but rather for post-religion: a perspective that can instruct and guide the development of our spiritual capacities while simultaneously respecting, integrating, and expanding beyond the limits of traditional religious ideologies. Our upcoming RSA spirituality report and final event on November 19th, hosted by Jonathan Rowson, will explore this idea further. But a new and more inclusive vehicle is needed. A post-religious framework for spirituality is now in order.

Maybe, then, gradually dropping our acts, ideologies, stories, religions, and boundaries, will grant us clarity over that single inescapable fact of our existence: we’re all in this together.

There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.

There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.

You feel it, don’t you?

- Rumi

Andres Fossas is a Senior Researcher at the RSA Social Brain Centre. He tweets @afossas0


[1] Nin, Anais (1990). Seduction of the Minotaur. Swallow Press.

Images credited to Rafiq Maqbool (AP), NASA, and Facebook.


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