Book Review of
THE POWER OF MODERN SPIRITUALITY
Review by David Lorimer
in Network Review, the Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network
William Bloom has been at the forefront of those redefining spirituality in the UK for many years, and is often called upon to represent modern spirituality in debates with more traditional approaches. In this comprehensive and lucid book, he brings together the fruits of his reflection and personal experience over the last 40 years to provide the reader with a map and a set of practical exercises. An encounter with Archbishop Trevor Huddleston was clearly a defining moment when he accused William and his colleagues of having no historical foundation, no heritage of ethics and values, no philosophical roots, no sense of context and therefore nothing useful to say about real world injustices and morality. This sharp rebuke set him thinking, and his considered response can be found in this book.
Many readers will be sympathetic with his contention that we want the benefits of religion and spirituality without having to buy into a set of beliefs. Asking his students to define spirituality has enabled him to formulate three golden keys — connection with the wonder and energy of life, the capacity for reflection, and dedication to service. This enables the development of heart and mind, the acquisition of a sense of meaning and purpose, what he calls an embedded sense of well-being and the ability to enjoy life without turning away from its challenges and suffering.
He examines the context in which modern spirituality has arisen, with our unprecedented access to information and an emphasis on self-determination and diversity. He also identifies values shared by the world’s spiritual traditions, but adds to these values from the green movement and developmental psychology, enabling him to articulate a holistic values statement including the responsibility to radiate a benevolent presence’ this requires the kind of self-management described later in the book.
The rest of the book is devoted to a more detailed consideration of connection, reflection and service, always recognising that people will have individual styles and preferences. Readers are invited to think about their own spiritual styles and gateways to connection with the help of extensive lists and to reflect on the nature of their experiences.
However, the emphasis is rightly on everyday life, and it is here that vocational challenges can arise, as he illustrates in the case of priests and nurses, who can lose touch with the importance of their work. At this point, he introduces his four core skills which can be applied to the three areas: the ability to pause and be mindful, the capacity to relax and be centred in your body, observing events in a good-humoured way, and yielding to the feeling of connection. He goes on to describe these in much greater detail while recognising the challenges involved and suggesting corresponding exercises to strengthen the capacity. I particularly enjoyed his description of keeping the inner smile. It is also important to schedule spiritual practice in order to embed it in everyday life.
The capacity for self-management can be awakened either through a general sense of dissatisfaction or through a wake-up call experience. William describes how Eileen Caddy worked in this way, compassionately reviewing her own thoughts, feelings and behaviour and saying that she let God work on her. He also recalls a friend nearing death and completing a process of self-healing, remarking that an open heart is a much greater blessing than death is a tragedy.
I found the chapter on the challenges of spiritual growth especially helpful when looking at the whole issue of spiritual baggage. William provides two very useful charts, one showing the direction of transformational process, for instance from fear to love, from ignorance to wisdom and from resentment to forgiveness; secondly, the human paradox of tension whereby we want to change but we also want to stay the same. We are tied by bungee cords of resistance and easily slip into default behaviour patterns. It is very helpful to explore the psychology of resistance in terms of conditioning, repression and homoeostasis, and to realise that the polarity between expansion and containment, action and rest operates in his Nature as a whole.
The third part is a response to the criticism that modern spirituality is not concerned with the wider community. Again, the development of spiritual qualities does not depend on particular belief systems, but rather expresses itself in compassion, wisdom and dedication to others. William provides a helpful exercise for clarifying your values and discusses doing good as part of the flow of life and the importance of seeing the best in others as proposed by Carl Rogers: unconditional positive regard, empathic understanding and congruence.
A more subtle topic concerns the quality of our presence and therefore the atmosphere we radiate around us. This gives us the opportunity of what William calls vibrational service in that we have an effect on the world through our mood and vibration. This is particularly apparent when we think of great spiritual teachers and the healing and uplifting quality of their presence. Another important ability is transforming our own negative energy and practising forgiveness.
William concludes by observing that the spiritual journey is from one state to another, connecting, reflecting and serving. In the process we open our hearts, expand our consciousness and develop a ‘compassionate generosity’. In every situation we can ask ourselves how we can connect more fully with life, reflect on the opportunity to develop wisdom and compassion, and how we can give service. Nor is this an individual endeavour but rather a coming together as a larger community of practice.
Whatever your spiritual path and inclination, you will surely find wise advice and gentle encouragement in this book.