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SPIRITUALISE: REVITALISING SPIRITUALITY TO ADDRESS 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES (THE RSA REPORT)

Reproduced from: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/spiritualise-revitalising-spirituality-to-address-21st-century-challenges


In a culture often thought to be shallow, awash with unfettered consumerism, celebrity gossip, status updates and formulaic scandals, and with our world leaders and politicians seemingly incapable of tackling the major problems of our age, such as climate change, inequality and widespread political alienation, the need and appetite for more ‘depth’ is palpable.

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To this end, we argue that spirituality should play a greater role in the public realm.

Written by Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, this report examines how many of society’s problems risk going unaddressed as we struggle to ‘do depth’ in public – it is historically sidestepped by governments and deferred to religions. But at a time of political alienation and democratic stress, it is no surprise that politicians and the public are now seeking to reconnect with their forgotten spiritual roots.

Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges is the culmination of a two-year project funded by the John Templeton Foundation and the Touchstone Trust. The project received contributions from over three hundred experts including atheists, agnostics, and people of various faiths.

Many people think of themselves as having a spiritual aspect to their lives, but without really knowing what that means. This report puts forth that whilst spiritual identification is an important part of life for millions of people, it currently remains ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, lacks credibility in the public domain.

This report recommends that we all rediscover and develop mature forms of spirituality, grounded both in what we can never really know about our place in the universe, and what we can know – and experience – about ourselves. The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.

Spirituality can be explored in terms of four main aspects of human existence that are often distorted or misrepresented:

  • Love – the promise of belonging
  • Death – the awareness of being
  • Self – the path of becoming and transcendence
  • Soul – the sense of beyondness

The report concludes with twelve points to be read as calls to action, but not of the conventional injunctive ‘do this!’ variety. In each case, the suggestion is that most issues in the public realm have spiritual roots that we need to acknowledge, engage with, and ‘bring to the table’ when our personal and professional roles oblige us to think more instrumentally.


Reproduced from: http://www.openhorizons.org/spirituality-what-is-it-the-rsa-report.html
​Spirituality: What is It?

​The Language of Spirituality

​“Sometimes people get the mistaken notion that spirituality is a separate department of life, the penthouse of our existence.  But rightly understood, it is a vital awareness that pervades all realms of our being.  Someone will say, “I come alive when I listen to music,” or “I come alive when I garden, or “I come alive when I play golf.” Wherever we come alive, that is the area in which we are spiritual.  And then we can say: “I know at least how one is spiritual in that area.” To be vital, awake, aware, in all areas of our lives is the task that is never accomplished, but it remains the goal.” (David Steindl-Rast, The Music of Silence) Spiritual literacy is knowing about the moods, attitudes, and capacities that are important to people in the many world religions, helping them to become awake, aware, and alive.

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Let’s say for the moment that spirituality is simply the activity of becoming as fully alive as possible, within oneself and in relation to others, in ways that are emotionally satisfying, and that are wise, compassionate, and inwardly free.  Above you will see some of the modes of spirituality as identified by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality and Practice.  These modes are available to believers, non-believers, and the vast majority who are somewhere in between.  They can be part of a secular spirituality or a religious spirituality.  They include but are more than emotional intelligence: knowing your own feelings and the feelings of others.  For many of us, this simple idea — that spirituality is the activity of being fully alive and that full aliveness has many modes — is sufficient.  But academics and policy makers may be interested in a more robust understanding of spirituality that is informed by cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, culture studies, brain science, mindfulness studies, philosophy, anthropology, and the academic study of religion,  Fortunately, a think tank in London – The RSA — offers it.  The rest of this page is on their report.

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 Spirituality as a Form of Embodied Cognition

The RSA Report

A 250 year old think-tank based in London, the RSA, offers an intellectually robust, politically relevant, interdisciplinary understanding of spirituality for the religious and non-religious alike.  It is also relevant to the large number of people in the world — perhaps the majority — who are in a middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief.

Building upon research in cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, culture studies, brain science, mindfulness studies, philosophy, anthropology, and the academic study of religion, the author of the RSA report —  Dr.Jonathon Rowson — defines spirituality as a form of embodied (viscerally felt) cognition arising out of the depth dimension in life.  Spirituality does not begin from the top down but rather, as it were,from the bottom up: that is, from the depths of bodily and cognitive experience.

The cognitive side of spirituality includes self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and sensitivity to the importance of “something more” than the individualized ego.  In its mature form it likewise includes kindness, social engagement, and a capacity for being present in the here-and-now.  Such spirituality is typically enriched by experiences of aliveness, gratitude, rapture, and homecoming; and it can be cultivated by practices such as meditation, yoga, gardening, running, and prayer.

Four Contexts for Awakening to the Depths

How do people become aware of the depths?  Often it is when they become aware of their own need to belong (love), the fact of mortality (death), the mystery of who they truly are (self), or the presence of that cannot be fully contained within objectifying mental grids (soul). Such experiences are the existential springboards for spirituality.  But the quality richness of spirituality extends far beyond a consideration of these subjects.  Spirituality finds its home in the interstices of everyday life.  Indeed it is everyday life, lived from its depths, lovingly.

Understood in this way, spirituality may include but does not necessarily entail, belief in God.  God may indeed be the “something more” to which the individual has awakened; but this “something more” may also be the ideals of Truth and Goodness and Beauty, or it may be the natural world, or all of the above, or none of the above.  The something more can remain unnamed but nevertheless felt. As felt, the individual feels inclined to live in a less self-centered way, in service to the common good of the world.

Whatever the names, spirituality — understood as embodied cognition — is available to theists and non-theists alike, and to the many (perhaps the majority) who are in-between.  As Andrew Marr puts it, “many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief.”  

​This rest of this page introduces you to the content of the RSA’s project and adds, at the end, a “spiritual alphabet” developed by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality and Practice

​– Jay McDaniel, 2/26/2018


A need  for mature spirituality in the public realm

“In a culture often thought to be shallow, awash with unfettered consumerism, celebrity gossip, status updates and formulaic scandals, and with our world leaders and politicians seemingly incapable of tackling the major problems of our age, such as climate change, inequality and widespread political alienation, the need and appetite for more ‘depth’ is palpable….To this end, we argue that spirituality should play a greater role in the public realm.’ (The RSA)

Understood in a way that is intellectually robust and politically relevant

‘The capacious term ‘spirituality’ lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation…There is little doubt that spirituality can be interesting, but what needs to be made clearer by those who take that for granted is why it is also important. To be a fertile idea for those with terrestrial power or for those who seek it, we need a way of speaking of the spiritual that is intellectually robust and politically relevant.’ (The RSA)

​Understanding ourselves as fundamentally a social species

‘The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species.

Human beings are constituted by evolutionary biology. We are embedded in complex social networks. We are largely habitual creatures and highly sensitive to social and cultural norms. We are better at rationalising than being rational.

However, recent social, political and environmental challenges fail to grasp that social context is not an afterthought, a variable to be controlled, but the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.

We need to make these theories of human nature more accurate through research, more explicit through public dissemination and more empowering through practical engagement.’

(The RSA)

What is the RSA?

The RSA “is a London-based, British organisation committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges. Founded in 1754 as the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, it was granted a Royal Charter in 1847, and the right to use the term Royal in its name by King Edward VII in 1908. The shorter version, The Royal Society of Arts and the related RSA acronym, are used more frequently than the full name.  Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee are some of the notable past and present members, and today it has Fellows elected from 80 countries worldwide.” (from Wikipedia)

An emerging view of human nature

Many people think of themselves as having a spiritual aspect to their lives, but without really knowing what that means. This report puts forth that whilst spiritual identification is an important part of life for millions of people, it currently remains ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, lacks credibility in the public domain.

This report recommends that we all rediscover and develop mature forms of spirituality, grounded both in what we can never really know about our place in the universe, and what we can know – and experience – about ourselves. The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself. (The RSA)

Beyond reference points of atheism and religion

‘We are examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large.’ (The RSA)

Developed with help from the neural
and cognitive sciences

‘Some recent developments in neural and cognitive sciences do significantly help to contextualise the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, experiences and practices. We selected six:

• Our deeply social nature highlights that ‘beliefs’ are not propositional.

• Cultural cognition helps explain why the sacred won’t go away.

• Automaticity reveals why the spiritual injunction to ‘wake up’ matters.

• Embodiment sheds light on the widespread experience of meaning.

• Our divided brains contextualise the need for perspective and balance.

• Neural plasticity indicates why we need to take spiritual practice seriously.’

(The RSA)

With spirituality in the mainstream

“The fact that the RSA – known for its work on policy issues like city growth, self-employment and public service reform – undertook this project is a sign of the growing importance being attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. Spirituality is coming into the mainstream. It could powerfully affect the way we approach major 21st century possibilities and challenges” (Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA)

(The RSA)

Table of Contents of the final RSA Report

​Acknowledgements 3
Background and purpose of the RSA’s two year project 5

1. Facing up to widespread spiritual confusion 9

Who needs spirituality? 9
Spirituality needs definition, but it doesn’t need a definition 14
Why ‘Spiritual but not religious’ might be a wrong turn 18
Spiritual is more about meaning than ‘happiness’ 21
The heart of the spiritual – it’s about our ‘ground’ not our ‘place’ 24

2. In search of our spiritual ‘ground’ – what are we? 29

The social brain: why ‘beliefs’ are not what we typically assume 30
Cultural psychology: why the sacred won’t go away 34
Automatic processing: why the spiritual injunction to ‘wake up’ matters 40
Embodied cognition: why the experience of meaning is visceral and important 44
Divided brain: why our need for perspective and balance is greater than ever 48
Neural plasticity: why we need to take spiritual practice seriously 50
Conclusions to section 2 54

3. Living from our ground, not our place 55

Love (the promise of belonging) 55
Self (the path of becoming) 67
Soul (the sense of beyondness) 73

4. Spiritual pathways to personal, social and political transformation 78

From political power to personal power and back again 80
From utility to virtue and back again 82
From economic objectives to existential threats and back again 83
From surface to depth, and back again 85
From life to death, and back again 87
From self to soul, and back again 88
From political freedom to psychological freedom and back again 88
From happiness to meaning and back again 89
From extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation and back again 89
From beliefs to institutions and back again 90
Afterword 92

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A Sympathetic, Theological Response

Now that the RSA project on spirituality is complete, what does spirituality come to mean?  As I read the report, with eyes influenced by process theology, I begin to think of “spirituality” as a form of knowing, feeling, and acting in the world: as embodied cognition.  What is “bodily” about it is that it originates from bodily experience (Whitehead called it experience in the mode of causal efficacy) and also that it cannot be separated from interactions with the world (process philosophers call it relationality) and from responsive actions to the world (Whitehead calls it decision-making).  I then think of “mature spirituality” (the RSA’s phrase) as a form of embodied cognition that is mindful, creative, compassionate, and wise in its way of living in the world. Thus understood, mature spirituality can find its home in atheists and believers alike, in the religiously affiliated and those who are none of the above, and the many who are in-between.

What about God? This does not mean that God is unreal or ineffective in spiritual development.  In process theology, God is understood as a spirit of creative transformation at work in the universe and the world that is continuously present and ever-adaptive to each new situation.  God is present in the ongoing history of the universe as a lure toward order and novelty; in the evolution of life on earth as a lure within each animal to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand; and in human beings (who are themselves creatures among creatures) as a lure, not only toward satisfaction, but also toward wisdom and compassion, creativity and inner freedom.  See Panentheism: The Universe as God’s Body.  All of this means that God or God’s lure is present within the process of spiritual development.  But “belief in God” is not a precondition for God to be effective in a person’s life.  A person can be open to the lure of creative transformation and name it differently or not be aware of it at all.  And if God is understood as a tyrant in the sky, then disbelief is probably much more conducive than belief. Spirituality can be enriched by theism and inhibited by theism, depending on the kind of theism at issue.

Personal and Political.  Spirituality is inescapably personal because it is synonymous with the depth dimension of a person’s life: his or her deepest feelings and motivations.  And yet it is not cut off from the world.  It is best expressed in compassion, care for the vulnerable, respect and care for the community of life.  It is nourished, not depleted, by rich and loving connections with the surrounding world and political advocacy for just causes.

Personal and Ecological.  It can provide an existential foundation for what those of us concerned with people, animals, and the earth call world loyalty. See, for example, What is Ecotheology?: It’s How Jane Goodall Looks at the World and also A Covenant with the World: Process Theology for Theists, Atheists, and Agnostics.  Or see the work of the network of thinkers and activists involved in Toward Ecological Civilization.  My point is that mature spirituality, understood as embodied cognition in service to life and planet, can provide a foundation for such work.  Of course, it can and needs to be informed by rich experiences with the more-than-human world.

A Subject of Scientific Inquiry. Importantly, as understood in this way, the topic of spirituality is fully compatible with science and can be studied scientifically by biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and others.  All they need to do is to recognize and be interested in the deeper dimensions of human experience: including partly conscious or unconscious aims and motivations that are grounded in bodily experience and that give rise to behavior.  Toward this end the understanding of experience offered by process philosophers — Alfred North Whitehead, for example — can be helpful because it is offers a language and cosmology in which these aspects of experience, and their connections with the body, are understood in their particularity and local settings, and also in the larger context of a creative and evolving universe.

Helpful for the Religiously Affiliated.  Equally important, as understood in this way, spirituality can also be encouraged and nourished by all forms of institutional and cultural religion at their best: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, Daoist, Confucian, Indigenous.  And because this understanding of spirituality can include non-theistic as well as theistic understandings of the universe, it can be embraced by participants in these traditions in their own distinctive ways.  A person can have a mature spirituality and believe in God, or be skeptical about God, or anywhere in between.  The in-between is especially important, because many people find themselves in this place.  As Andrew Marr puts it, “many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief.”

Three strands of spirituality: experiences, practices and wisdom.  Mature spirituality includes the wisdom of emotions as well as the wisdom of discursive reason, and the body as well as the mind.  As embodied in a person’s life it has three strands which evolve over time:

Spiritual experiences: moments of aliveness, rapture, courage, and homecoming.

Spiritual practices: meditation, yoga, running, gardening, prayer, music making and music enjoying.

Spiritual perspectives: visions of what it means to be fully alive and contribute to the common good of the world.

​Thus understood, spirituality is not an add-on to human life but the core of a life well-lived. ​

— Jay McDaniel

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Videos from the RSA Project

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