RSA Looks to Elevate the Discussion on Spirituality

PIc: Indrajit Chatterjee (CC)

PIc: Indrajit Chatterjee (CC)

“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.” – Jonathan Rowson

Between explaining it away as an artifact of the brain and militant rejection of it as leftover cultural/scientific ignorance, spirituality has long been anathema to academic circles (and many corners of the YAY SCIENCE! internet community).  If it’s discussed at all, it’s from the proposition of wishful fairy stories, peppered with a healthy amount of contempt and ridicule.  In fact, it’s difficult to have a serious (or, perhaps more appropriately, ‘sincere’) conversation on the matter without those from the allegedly rational crowd invoking invisible pink unicorn garage dragons or a constitution of flying pasta.  To be sure, blind and literalist observance of religious dogma wallows in the same low-level muck, promulgating and reinforcing those all-too-typical uneventful examinations.

Given that admittedly volatile milieu – along with the baggage the word itself has acquired – the RSA (you might recognize some of their entertaining whiteboard Animates) has recently taken up the task of exploring a more complex and richer understanding of the subject’s implications and applications.  They might not have the farthest reach, but they do provide a scholarly forum that works in moving the needle towards serious consideration and respectability.  At the very least, it’s refreshing to hear a more sophisticated discussion held in the greater intellectual space (audience feedback from the first event ranged from relief – “like opening a window and being able to breathe more easily” – to wild enthusiasm).

In the first video, department chair Jonathan Rowson introduces the topic and kicks off the discussion. Panelists cover the “embodied” nature of spirituality, its practical and public value, the intellectual taboo against giving it serious consideration, and issues with the term itself and the separation it denotes:

A transcript of Rowson’s own speech/introduction, which includes the quote from above, can be found in an article he posted where he ties the issue in with Russell Brand’s recent political/spiritual advocacy:

The Spiritual and the Political: Beyond Russell Brand

Professor and cognitive scientist Guy Claxton is the lone featured speaker in the second video (my favorite of the two). While he expands on some of the themes from the previous event, he directs his focus towards the topic’s central essence.  That is, more than stemming from simple observation, flawed thinking, and/or a way to lazily explain the world, Claxton’s opinion is that spirituality and religion “originate in a particular kind of felt experience”:

“These experiences are typically short-lived, surprising, and uncontrollable, but they seem – to the person having them – to be highly significant and highly attractive.  They go by a variety of names in different cultures: kensho, satori, the grace of God, sometimes ‘mystical experience’…peak experiences.  To try and be reasonably neutral, I’m going to call them simply ‘Glimpses’ with a capital ‘G’.”

Claxton goes on to describe the “physicality” of such an experience, how spiritual practice attempts to recapture these Glimpses, and how religions became (at least initially) codified sets of such practices:

He even channels the teachings of Douglas Harding and Alan Watts in some of his insights.  Take this point in his talk:

“Astonishingly, right here and now, the world is ‘Guy Claxton-ing’ – in a particular and, it has to be said, rather peculiar way.  This talk should actually be billed as, ‘by the World Temporarily Masquerading as Guy Claxton.'”

And compare it to:

“What you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call ‘here and now.’ You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing. The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around. The real deep down you is the whole universe.” – Alan Watts

Watts himself would have been right at home in this discussion, long ago recognizing our conceptual trappings concerning the ‘spiritual’:

“Now of course ‘reality’ from a philosophers point of view is a dangerous word. A philosopher will ask me, ‘What do I mean by reality? Am I talking about the physical world of nature? Or am I talking about a spiritual world? Or what?’ And to that I have a very simple answer – when we talk about the material world, that is actually a philosophical concept. So in the same way if I say reality is spiritual, that’s also a philosophical concept, and reality itself is not a concept.

Reality is …(strikes a gong and lets it ring)… and we won’t give it a name.”


THE DARKNESS OF GOD: A Personal Report on Consciousness Transformation
by physicist John-Wren Lewis (an account referenced by Claxton)

What is Enlightenment?: Exploring the Goal of the Spiritual Path

Scientists Get a TASTE of the Transcendent

4 Comments on "RSA Looks to Elevate the Discussion on Spirituality"

  1. Craig Bickford | Feb 1, 2014 at 7:53 pm |

    There are ways of speaking about spirituality, the ones that involve it’s root core (the limbic system and our emotional world as it related to the mind and body), and the fake world of dark occultism and the new age clown shoe approach which is to classify every psuedo-science or metaphysical thing as a spiritual aspect or related area of study/indoctrination. This is some metaphysical masturbation right here in this piece.

    • So it seems like you prefer an “embodied” spirituality, which – not sure if you listened to it – is exactly what Guy Claxton covers in the second talk. Understand, though, that your “body” doesn’t necessarily end at the boundaries of your skin…which was kind of the point of the first Watts quote (and the Organism-Environment clip his name links out to).

  2. Gjallarbru | Feb 2, 2014 at 8:45 am |

    There is nothing wrong with wide meaning of the word spirituality. To be “spiritual”, you most posess a number of qualities and mental dispositions, which represent a very wide body of notions.

    Of course, considering the loonier stuff out there, some clarification might be in order. On the other hand, even if a new, clearer, definition is arrived at, there is no way to prevent the abuse of the word.

  3. Gjallarbru | Feb 3, 2014 at 11:11 am |

    Yeah, it is about greed if I’m not mistaken. What is your point? How does this apply to defining spirituality?

    If you referring to the origin of my nickname, being a golden bridge over the river Gjall, extreme border of Hel’s domain, that I know. Being made of gold, I gues it could stimulate dragon sickness.

Comments are closed.