Response to Criticisms of ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’

27 May 2014

It is fashionable to criticise Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) people for having no community, nor commitment, nor social engagement. But this is based on a misperception and stereotyping.

The current spate of criticism derives from the findings of the Pew Forum that a substantial percentage of US citizens now designate themselves as SBNR.

The criticisms are exemplified recently in articles by Rabbi David Wolpe in Time Magazine and on the BBC website by Quaker Tom Shakespeare

The misperception is understandable because prominent aspects of the SBNR culture can be seen as quick-fix spirituality, focused on personal gratification and to lack values. Make me healthy, successful and beautiful.

But this glamour is only the showbiz tip of the iceberg. It is an easy and inaccurate target. It is stereotyping similar to damning Christianity because of some abusive clerics.

SBNR people tend to be deeply engaged in action and caring. In his book Blessed Unrest for example Paul Hawken describes a global movement of thousands of non-profit activist organisations many of them fuelled by SBNR people. It would be interesting to research how many of the activists in for example Greenpeace or Occupy are SBNR. Are these not substantial, ethical and activist communities?

When I ran the Alternatives Programme for a decade at St. James’s Church in London I was simultaneously running a drop-in centre for teenagers with special needs and adults returning to learning. My team at the church, all of us SBNR, consisted mainly of professional carers and educators.

There is also this stereotyping of SBNR people as having no discipline or true commitment. How on earth do the critics know this other than from an impression? SBNR people are, I suggest, as disciplined or undisciplined as any other human beings, especially those of traditional faiths.

The reality I suggest is that religious adherents do not like the way in which SBNRs feel free to wander beyond the usual boundaries. SBNR types like to explore the different tools and concepts that can be found in all spiritual traditions. They do not adhere to one single belief. And why should they? This is the modern world. Why on earth would any autonomous adult want to stay within the confines of one knowledge tradition or belief community without assessing and incorporating what is useful in others?

Reframing the Wellbeing Debate

First published in the Journal of Holistic Healthcare — May/June 2010

Its Political not Scientific!
Holistic health practitioners know that an essential part of wellbeing is our connection with the wonder and energy of nature and all life. But they are often excluded from mainstream medicine due to accusations of ‘bad science’ especially when mentioning energy, qi or prana. This paper suggests that practitioners move on from that debate and be encouraged by the NHS’s full support of spirituality in best practice. It encourages practitioners to write HOLISTIC whenever they are asked to fill in a form with a religion box.
There is an elephant in the holistic healthcare room. It causes embarrassment. It triggers intellectual sneers. The most experienced of practitioners and teachers may have trouble talking about it.  This creature is sometimes known as vitality, or prana, qi, or just energy. The challenge of bringing together mechanistic medicine with the more subtle aspects of life, is a big one. One worldview — contemporary mechanistic western medical science — finds the idea of prana preposterous.  The other — the complementary, holistic, integrative approach — uses it as a foundation for many of its healing models.
My own first skirmishes in this paradigm war took place decades ago with my father, a medical doctor and Freudian psychiatrist. When arguing with me, his intellectual outrage at the idea of a healing energy became sublimated into a passive aggressive dismissal, suggesting (I am serious) that I might need psychoanalytic therapy to help me overcome this infantile delusion. For many years I felt diminished and infantilised by his patronising putdown; and I see that same anxiety in many of my complementary friends who want the approval of their mainstream colleagues — as if their mainstream colleagues represented parental love, safety and acceptance.
Decades on, however, I understand my father’s behaviour. His demeaning putdown was actually the defensiveness of a man looking down a barrel at a different perspective that, if admitted, would dismantle his paradigm, his sense of identity, his status and the way he lived. The concept of prana attacked his worldview. He hid from the threat behind  a smokescreen of pomposity and regal certainty. Enough! I know that you know what I’m writing about here.
When opposing paradigms clash, the fury of the disagreements is not simply fuelled by logic and methodology. It is not just ‘good science’ versus ‘bad science’. The fury is fuelled by the emotional and psychological investments made by the parties. For a while I was an academic social theorist and I was particularly attracted to the Frankfurt school of critical theory, which uses Marxism and psychoanalysis as a method for deconstructing the internal drives that glue us to our worldviews. In sociology there is a concept called Mannheim’s Paradox, which asks whether it is possible ever to think oneself out of one’s paradigm, because we are trapped by the very patterns of our thought process, and they themselves belong to our prevailing paradigm. It is the snake swallowing its own tail.
The laboured point that I am making is that the business of transforming a paradigm — in this case the prevailing clunky model of western medical science — is not simple. It is charged and it is complex. It is a psychological and a political process. Medical scholars in particular are rarely going to jump ship unless their status is maintained. With decades of neural grooves embedded in habitual, unconscious survival drives, what possible motivation could make losing their status feel okay? I remember reading the Hansard reports of debates around complementary medicine. Apparently many MPs and peers who supported it had a personal experience of how holistic medicine had helped them or a loved one through a crisis. But otherwise, failing a moment of crisis or epiphany, people will hang on to their identities and worldviews for dear life.
Before looking more closely at the political dynamics, let us ask an important question.
What do we really want? And is what we want radically different from the mainstream model?
In answering these questions, I suggest that it is helpful to expand the argument away from the academic domain, outwards towards government policy and NHS management. Best practice in UK personal and community healthcare is already explicitly seeking to be holistic. The policy directives are clear and sing from the same song sheet. The basics include good food, fresh water, safe accommodation, safe streets, education, social acceptance, being valued, harmonious environment, faith, spirituality and religion. In this public health model of healthcare, physical wellbeing is connected to psychological wellbeing, which is linked to social-psychological wellbeing. Social-psychological wellbeing is itself connected to issues of faith and spirituality, and to the existential realities of the surrounding society and culture.
If this is the case, then what makes a complementary practitioner’s holistic approach so different from a governmental holistic approach? It seems to be the elephant in the room again.
The fully holistic model includes the idea that some sort of ‘subtle information’ connects these different levels of wellbeing . All the medical and healing models of the  East, particularly Ayurveda and Taoism, but also indigenous traditions the world over include this fundamental notion of connectedness. All of these approaches consider prana, qi, benevolent vitality and healing energy to be an essential component of their thinking and working practice. According to these systems of medicine, being connected with the universe through the benevolent forces of nature is a fundamental aspect of health.
To put it another way, the whole wellbeing project is hopelessly incomplete unless it includes prana, chi, vitality. Yet we know that mechanistic medicine and research are hostile to this notion of subtle information. Government policy, however, is on our side.
We are looking at a paradigm conflict. Let us be realistic. We know from painful experience that until mechanistic medicine has devised some rigorous gizmo that can measure and can manage prana, there will be no transformation of  the mechanistic paradigm. So let us forget about winning the academic, scientific argument and focus on the politics and the overarching framework. We should argue holistically, not scientifically. There are lessons to be learnt here from political campaigning, one of which is the art of reframing the argument. In the ongoing US debate over healthcare reform, for example, the Republicans consistently reframe the discussion so that it becomes an issue of patriotism: healthcare reform reflects they say un-American attitudes that would offend the founding fathers. British political campaigning, as we all know, is often not about policies, but about the framework within which the day’s discussion takes place.
Let us therefore avoid the good science versus bad science bickering, and instead think about how to reframe the wellbeing debate so that it works to everyone’s benefit.
We need to notice that the current language and priorities of the NHS explicitly support, encourage and insist upon including the spiritual dimension. (If you just google ‘NHS Faith and Spirituality Action Plan’ you will immediately find dozens of reports from NHS trusts on how they are putting the plan into action). It is also, for example, explicit in The Revised Guidance on Spiritual Care and Chaplaincy in NHS Scotland 2008, which states that, ‘NHS Scotland is committed to providing or facilitating spiritual and religious care with equal commitment to any within its care’. And best practice in psychiatric care increasingly allows space for the patient’s own beliefs and spiritual story. (For more on this, visit the Royal College of Psychiatrist’s Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group.)
Professor Dawkins’ god-free ideas have no influence within healthcare provision. Politically this pluralism is partly due to the government’s need to avoid inflaming religious and racial conflict, and to integrate the Muslim community into UK citizenship. But it is also undeniable that the faith communities have a deep heritage of service ethos. Whatever your wider opinion of religion, in the past it has very often been a force for good in developing humane treatment and good care in medicine. As for its future role, I see a dynamically new (or maybe it is ancient) model of spirituality fast emerging. The statistics and the general evidence are clear: although a substantial proportion of people in the developed world have moved on from being aligned with one particular religion, they have not become atheistic. Many have adopted a more general view of spirituality, understanding it as a personal experience of the wonder and energy of life, and sensing  that this connectedness is good for our health and wellbeing. See for example, the ongoing World Values Survey Project located in the University of Michigan and headed up by Ronald Inglehart
That health and wellbeing are positively affected by spirituality, can even be validated using theories borrowed from atheistic socio-biology and evolutionary psychology. In fact it was the father of socio-biology E.O. Wilson, who put forward the theory of biophilia. Pointing out that humans are hard-wired for affiliation with the natural world, from a grain of sand through to the night sky and mystery of the cosmos, and that this is good and uplifting for us. This connectedness he believed to be the primal source of the religious instinct, in that we feel good when we connect and are in rapport with the natural world. (E.O. Wilson, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, 1990.) His explanation for this deep sense of belonging to the natural world is that all that we are made of the same stuff that came from the Big Bang. This is not rigorous socio-biological theory, but it is a clear philosophical proposition and surely looks like spirituality masquerading under other name.
This then is the reframe. Stop having the scientific argument. It is a waste of time and energy.  Reframe it as a simple statement: ‘spirituality is an essential part of wellbeing’. And take note that this statement, as well as the notion of spirituality as a natural sense of connectedness, has some serious scientific foundations. Then notice too that we have already won the debate and paradigm war. Wellbeing is already part of the government’s health policy package, and Concern for Spirituality is clearly named as a marker of best practice in the NHS.
So we can take the high ground, stop the futile scientific debate and assert that the fully holistic approach includes levels of analysis beyond the mechanistic model, and that is already supported by NHS directives on best practice.
This level of political activity, managing the framework within which the discourse happens, also has to be grounded in real life one-to-one activity. Let me give a relevant example from my own work. For the last decade I have been facilitating workshops and trainings, which begin with a simple question.
‘What circumstances most easily connect you with the wonder and energy of life?’
The answers that come from the participants cover a wide spectrum. They include, for example: nature, art, relationships, hobbies, dance, meditation and pets.
I then ask a second question, which is rhetorical, but helps people to remember the value of connecting.
‘Is it good for you to connect with the wonder and energy of life?’
Please note that these questions can be addressed to anyone. Professor Dawkins, when you look through your telescope at the magnificence of the cosmos or walk through nature, is that good for you? Of course, it is. Why? What are the mechanics of your biophilic response? In this context, a simple phrase — not intellectualised — such as ‘connecting with the wonder and energy of nature and life’ is understandable and acceptable. It has no immediate connotations of faith and religion; nor does it directly imply the existence of prana. Yet this sense of connectedness and its benefits to wellbeing resist explanation by coherent and rigorous scientific methodology. The NHS is not bothered by this lack of theory and requires no explanation for what is self-evident, simply and clearly asserting that the inclusion of spirituality is best practice. And even the most hardened mechanistic cynics can sense that it is indeed good for them too.
There is then a third question that I pose to my groups.
‘˜Do you know how to turn the volume up on your experience of the wonder and energy? Do you know the skills for anchoring the consequent sense of wellbeing into your ongoing health?’ This then leads us into a discussion about breath, relaxation, mindfulness, an open heart and gratitude.  What are we talking about here? Is it spirituality? Is it scientific? What matters is that it provides a foundation for wellbeing, and in one way or another complementary practitioners have a feeling that this is exactly what they are doing: reconnecting their clients/patients with the natural flow of life.
We have here the beginning of a political logic. Think globally. Act Locally. We start with ourselves. Then clients/friends/patients. Then the polity. Locally, it starts with each of us looking after ourselves properly. Part of this requires regular and ongoing connection with the wonder and energy of life — in whatever way works best and most easily for you. Most of us would if we knew how to, like to spend some time every day soaking in that experience of connection. We know how good it is for us, and we need to do it for our health’s sake.
Then with our friends, clients and students, we can practise our particular healing art and enable them to come into more fluid connection with the benevolent dynamics of the natural world. And this congruence of personal and professional practice can give us greater integrity, maturity and confidence. From that foundation we can confidently ignore or transcend or marginalise the good science versus bad science debate, because the real issue is whether are we enabling our patients/clients/friends to make more full and wholesome connections with the wonder and energy of life, which is the foundation, the fuel and the joy of wellbeing.
We then, I suggest, need to expand this work into society in general. One way of doing this is to give wider and deeper meaning to the word ‘holistic’, fully acknowledging that holistic healthcare has to include all aspects of mainstream healthcare. This can be supported too by writing HOLISTIC whenever you have to fill in a form which has a religion box, especially in the UK Census March 2011. This will help to integrate the emerging 21st century spirituality — connection with wonder and energy of life — into a medical paradigm that includes both the mechanistic and the subtle.

Pissed Off with BBC for their Rudeness to Me

December 2006

A few weeks ago, following the death of Eileen Caddy at 89, I was interviewed for Sunday, BBC radios major religious affairs programme. Eileen was one of the founders of the Findhorn Foundation, which started in 1962 and which has been the most influential holistic, green and new age spiritual community in Europe. In her last years, Eileen was awarded an MBE a British medal of distinction for her services to spiritual enquiry and the Foundation was awarded non-governmental organization status by the United Nations.
The producers from the BBC talked to me on the phone and said they wanted to ask some questions about Eileen and her significance in contemporary spirituality. During the live interview, the actual questions asked by Roger Bolton were belittling of Eileen, inferring that she was a shallow hippy. I corrected him on all counts and, though I kept it to myself, I was angry at his rudeness and the producers misinformation.
Over the years, I have represented holistic and new age spirituality on many BBC programmes and, with a couple of rare exceptions, I have always been met with a sardonic and hostile attitude. I had not expected this to happen yet again when dealing with the recent death of a woman who was dear to many people and whose work had been honored by the Queen and the UN.
Was it worth protesting to the BBC? I would have been happy to do battle, but decided that if I did, there was a possibility that I would never be asked back. And even if they were rude, at least I was given the opportunity to present ideas and arguments that I believe are worth hearing. So I kept quiet.
Nevertheless I found it difficult to let the affair go. I ran negative thoughts of blame and fantasized about what I should have said and would say next time. At the same time, I also reflected on why so many journalists and serious people are still so suspicious and dismissive of the new spirituality. This was an opportunity for some clear thinking.
One of the problems with contemporary spirituality, I suggest, is that it has so many different aspects. Whilst it contains the very best and deepest of traditional spiritual paths and of modern psychology, it also has many quick-fix and quick-thrill elements. There are many contemporary spiritual books and teachers who suggest that human suffering is some kind of illusion and that, with one wave of a magic wand, everything can be permanently healed and spiritually fulfilled. Just like that.
Well, there may be occasions when a quick and graceful fix is possible I pray for them all the time but the reality is that personal spiritual development is a long and arduous task. Every single spiritual tradition, without exception, from all regions of the globe and all times in history, teaches that the spiritual path requires discipline, patience and endurance as we move step by step towards truth, wisdom and love. Understanding the illusory nature of existence is only one insight on what Joseph Campbell called The Heros Journey. Equally, an encounter with an angel or an initiation into a healing system such as Reiki are great and helpful gifts, but they do us a disservice if for one second they make us think that the Path is easy.
Show me anyone who claims that there is a spiritual path free of heroic struggle and I will bet you my last dollar that they havent understood it properly, and also that they have difficulties with intimate relationships or dealing with the realities of human suffering. It is a form of emotional immaturity. Most of us, me included, can be like that. We would love a magic wand that makes all things better instantaneously and free of pain. But such an immediate fix does not exist. Yes, I believe in unconditional love and grace, but it takes time and work to land and integrate.
Thinking about all this, I wondered whether I could write about it without sounding like some puritanical party-pooper. And then I received a letter, which was a perfect example of what concerns me.
This letter sought my advice. The writer described how a close friend, who was very spiritual, had suddenly betrayed her in a very nasty way. Because of this betrayal, the writer now felt upset, depressed and cynical, and wondered if I had some practical exercises, similar to the ones in my books, that would make her feel positive again. I wrote back:
People are people, my friend. The trick here, I believe, is not to protect yourself or increase positive energy. The real strategy is to become compassionately realistic about why and how people behave in the ways that they do. Using this approach, you can open your heart, deepen your compassion and expand your wisdom. You might, for example, want to study childhood psychology and how children, deprived of love, behave later in life.
Every deep spiritual path recognises that there is suffering and that there is no avoiding it. Modern approaches, which ignore that reality, do us a disservice. The purpose of positive energy here is to support us in facing and understanding the pain that people cause and endure.
So has this been a party-pooping piece of writing? I hope not. I just want our emerging spirituality to stand proud, wise and compassionate. And realistic.
And when a wise and beautiful woman who has been a force for good, such as Eileen Caddy, dies I want the BBC to treat her passing with respect.

Notes from a Successful MBS Author

From ‘Writers & Artists Year Book’  — 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 


William Bloom reveals the trials of writing for the Mind, Body & Spirit market
What’s it all about? What’s the meaning of life? What’s my purpose? How am I meant to live? These Big Questions are at the heart of the Mind, Body & Spirit (MBS) movement and its books. Not surprisingly, the quality of answers ranges across a wide spectrum, from self-centred banality to some actual wisdom. It was ever so with philosophy and religion.
Free of the pulpit and the university chair, yet attempting to wrestle with these core issues, the MBS movement — also known as New Age and holistic — is an easy target for critics who question its authority. As a popular movement it does not appear to have gravitas or roots or a secure intellectual method. It is also a very recent phenomenon. Just as each generation tends to decry the next generation’s music, so philosophers and religionists do not like the look of this new creature in their territory. The glitterati, the media intellectuals, are also suspicious.
So, first things first, as an MBS author in the UK, expect no respect!
Almost without exception, the book pages of the national media will not give you any space except perhaps to make some snobbish wisecracks. The media likes to make fun of New Age ideas. But far from being a small niche fashion, MBS is now a nationwide lifestyle approach, which the glitterati themselves may adopt when its design elements (e.g. feng shui) are attractive or its healthcare strategies (e.g. stress control using visualisation) are pragmatically useful. Reflecting this, most newspapers carry MBS sections where the focus is mainly on health and beauty, and with only the occasional foray into anything actually to do with the soul or spirit.
But why is there this scepticism in the media? After years of watching and receiving their gibes — I can think of several times when BBC radio producers have reassured me that it was going to be a friendly interview, only to be met by the usual sarcasm (even once for an obituary piece on the Sunday programme!). I interpret the cynicism as the anxious outrage of peoples whose own worldview and lifestyle are threatened. It is a clash of paradigms and cultures. The quick-witted, speeding, red meat-eating, boozing, smoking hacks do not want to examine how they themselves live or their fixed ideas about the nature of reality and consciousness.
The cynicism of Grub Street is not helped by the number of authors in the MBS field whose work is indeed extraordinarily flaky, opinionated and harmful. One example of these flakes, sometimes called New Age fascists, is the brigade that chants the ‘you create your own reality’ mantra and has the cruelty to tone it towards people with life-threatening illness or, even worse, children caught up in war and famine. These fatalists who suggest that dying children in sub-Saharan Africa ‘chose their destiny’ are often the same people who then go gooey-eyed at angels, fairies and spooks. Not surprisingly the cynics are outraged by these attitudes. But, if you are a would-be MBS author or publisher, you cannot help but notice that books on angels, spooks and creating your own reality are perennial sellers.
On the positive side, however, MBS material often initiates and supports the very best in holistic and integrative healthcare. For example, the increasing awareness of the relationship between emotions, diet, social tensions and health has been pioneered by MBS bestsellers such as Deepak Chopra and Louise Hay. The notion of self-managed healthcare is deeply embedded in the holistic approach. The philosophical connection between the concepts of sub-atomic physics and mysticism, the alliance of feminism and eco-spirituality, the inclusive recognition that all religious traditions share important core features — these valuable elements in today’s culture have all been initiated and nurtured by MBS authors.
As a body of knowledge and cultural movement, MBS presents a general worldview that opposes, to one degree or another, mainstream traditional culture. From an MBS perspective, mainstream culture might be provocatively caricatured as patriarchal, uncomfortable with emotional literacy, devoted to a crude billiard ball model of the universe in which only the solid is real, and peculiarly narrow-minded when presented with any concepts that include altered states of consciousness, metaphysics or the notion of energy/vitality as an important force in human affairs. MBS presents a more fluid model of an interconnected, interdependent universe in which matter, energy and consciousness are aspects of the same spectrum and interchangeable.
No wonder that mainstream commentators may be suspicious. Their worldview is under attack. The ongoing paradigm war in healthcare between scientific fundamentalists and holistic practitioners exemplifies this.
To better understand the MBS field it is useful to place it in its historical context and see it as part of the democratisation of information. It is a cliché now to notice that a few hundred years ago enquirers into the meaning of life would have been severely restricted in their research. Predominantly illiterate and with travel so difficult, their enquiry would have been limited to local authorities. Priests and wise women would have been sources of information and we can only guess at the quality of their answers. We can surmise that their responses would have been clothed mainly in their particular culture. There was no interfaith movement, nor much multiculturalism. To enquire fully into the big questions would have required literacy and travel, both scarce resources. Even if you possessed both, there was no centre of education that housed information on all the world’s religious traditions and their techniques; nor for example was there a body of study which we now call psychology.
The mushrooming of literacy and communications since the 19th century has transformed that situation. Answers to the great questions can be found now in thousands of different sources. Over the last decades, for the first time in human history, the spiritualities, beliefs and philosophies of all cultures are now accessible. The sacred books of all traditions are available and there is at least one website that claims to provide the texts of all of them.
Teachings that were previously passed on one by one, teacher to student — such as tribal shamanic secrets or yoga techniques — are also now part of the public domain. The esoteric strategies of traditional faiths — for example meditation, visualisation, body posture and prayer — historically restricted to the mystics of those traditions, are also on public view.
This is no shallow revolution. Freedom of information has dismantled the dominating hierarchies of restricted information — in religion more than in any other domain of knowledge. Historically the power of religious organisations, of all faiths, was maintained by the claim that only an ordained few had access to the truth. At one level, in terms of literacy, this was indeed a horribly accurate statement. In terms of social status it was also violent and repressive.
MBS can, in my opinion, be seen as the cultural movement that is exploring and expressing this new-found freedom. All the old secrets are now on display. The dominance based on a monopoly of claimed truth or a monopoly of information is dismantled. The holistic movement is young and in its developmental stages. It is so young that it hardly even recognises itself, let alone takes itself seriously, which would be a good first step for a movement that wants others to take it seriously.
In this historical context of cultural upheaval, it is no wonder that traditional religionists survey this scene, despair and decry the smorgasbord, the spiritual supermarket. The books and the general media offerings seem to offer no grounding in a stable community, a trustworthy tradition or a set of ethics.
To a degree these protests are justified. The inevitable forces of commercialisation and popularisation have indeed appropriated some precious spiritual jewels and bowdlerised them, sometimes beyond recognition. The dumbing down and smorgasbord aspects of MBS are easy targets. But that vulgarisation has always existed in the field of belief, from saints’  bones and lascivious monks through to shrouds and cure-all snake oil.
The impression of being a spiritual supermarket is, when looked at more closely, a strength. One of the most positive features of MBS is its willing integration of many domains that participate in the enquiry for meaning. When I edited The Penguin Book of New Age and Holistic Writing in 2000 I organised these domains in a way that is still relevant.
  • New Science
  • Psychology
  • Gaia – The Living Earth
  • Holistic Health and Healing
  • Feminism and the Goddess
  • Shamanic and Magical Traditions
  • Mystic and Esoteric Religion
  • Modern Prophesy
In one form or another you will find similar sections, located close to each other, in most bookshops. What these books have in common is that they are all accessible to a popular audience and are not academic. Within each of the categories there are substantial bestsellers. Publishers, of course, are looking to repeat them. At the time of writing this article, authors such as Deepak Chopra, Neil Donald Walsh, Caroline Myss and Eckhart Tolle are performing strongly. In the past, writers such as John Grey, M. Scott Peck and Louise Hay have topped the bestseller lists. As I mentioned above, there is currently a fashion for books on angels, spiritualist mediums, positive psychology and how to use the energy of thought for personal success. Previous flavours of the month have included subjects such as relationships, creativity, quantum physics, detoxing, past lives and energy medicine.
But in writing directly for the national media, authors need to pitch their pieces carefully inside the limits of what editors feel they can reasonably accept. The sarcasm of their colleagues and bad science jibes can have a powerful censoring effect.
Is there a secret to success in this field? I once heard a cynical commissioning editor saying that the recipe for an MBS bestseller is to: (a) Tell people what they already know; (b) Wrap it up so that they think they are reading it for the first time; (c) Write it so that the reader feels intelligent for understanding the material and is therefore part of a cutting edge or spiritual elite. This means that pioneering authors, the originators of concepts, may be overshadowed by the more populist authors who transform original and unique material into a more accessible form. So another piece of advice for MBS authors seeking success is to not be original, but to develop the original material of others. (I am of course waiting philosophically for other authors to make a mint out of my work.) This, of course, is not always the case. Fritjof Capra’s ‘Tao of Physics’ and Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ are good examples of bestselling and pioneering books.
So as an MBS author, as in most literary fields, you have a wide range of options. You can offer your work as a flaky mishmash of half-baked truisms laid out on the supermarket smorgasbord of commercialised religion, psychology and philosophy. Or you can be part of an important cultural liberation movement in which adults, free of traditional prejudices and with an open heart and mind, are supported in exploring the most profound questions about life and its meaning.

1 April 2014


1 April 2014
Forwarded from the International Press Office of Global Media

Following six months of secret talks the Dalai Lama and the Pope today joined forces to announce the founding of a new world religion.

‘We are both men in the last years of our lives and we want to leave a meaningful legacy. The most important thing we can do is to bring all the world’s religions under one single umbrella. We are therefore proud to announce a new world religion of universal spirituality.’

The Dalai Lama has been known for decades as a hugely influential spokesperson for compassion and mindfulness. The new Pope has received worldwide approval for his modernising and open approach to religion.

These two important leaders were brought together by the most influential woman in the US media, Oprah Winfrey, who is herself an important proponent of a universal spirituality.

Talks have already been held with the United Nations and there are plans for the UN General Assembly in New York to become a holistic temple dedicated to love and charity.

Across the planet there has been mixed reaction to this announcement. Conservative elements in all faith communities are disturbed and denounced this move as a form blasphemy. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, however, was more sympathetic and has instructed the clergy of the Anglican community to pray for guidance.

A more extreme reaction came from former British Prime Minister and now international diplomat for faith and capitalism, Tony Blair. He was also preparing plans to announce a new world religion and the wind has been taken out his sails.

‘I am very disappointed, in fact angry, at the Dalai Lama and Pope,’ said Mr Blair at a press conference. ‘In a few weeks time I was going to announce a new world religion all of my own. The announcement was going to be made from the first of Richard Branson’s Virgin public space flights. Announcing it from the stratosphere was going to be my crowning moment of spin. I fear that we may well see the beginning of some kind of religious war here. My religion will be better.’

Deepak Chopra was also upset because his own plans for a global spirituality had also been trounced. ‘What do they know about endocrinology and acupuncture?’ he complained. ‘Or hair dye?’

Prince Charles however was full of admiration. ‘Ever since my mother, Her Majesty the Queen, started channelling Cleopatra and my father Prince Philip, started practising Reiki, I have been waiting for such an announcement. If needed I am prepared to offer my services as monarch for this new world religion. I am even prepared to knit my own cloak and crown.’

Across the world, however, there was an immediate backlash from tweeting young people. They demanded the end to any grandiose ideas of a universal religion or spirituality. ‘We don’t trust anyone to start a world religion,’ one of them tweeted. ‘Leave us alone.’ ‘WTF. OMG,’  tweeted one five year old commentator.

Kermit the frog however was delighted and said that having spoken to the Dalai Lama and the Pope he was looking forward to wearing the new robes of white, crimson and purple, with a ceremonial hat that resembled a wedding cake. All hail, Cardinal Kermit.

Blessings to all of you on this first day of April and Day of the Fools.

Money: Getting it to Dance for God


The Essex Hall Lecture 1997
Keynote Address to the Annual Convention of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches
In an ideal world spiritual and religious authorities would give us clear guidance on how to manage money and our finances. The reality, however, as we all know, is that the history of religion and money is confused, frequently unpleasant and often abusive. This is a sorry state of affairs and it would only be pathetic if we were not so desperately in need of clear guidance.
In this evenings talk I want to share with you some insights about the spiritual confusion and its sources. I want then to look at some other ways of understanding money and finance. Finally I want to investigate whether there are some creative and useful strategies that we can use in the futurestrategies that serve both our own spiritual fulfilment and also work towards creating a more just and caring human community.
This talk cannot be purely academic because money is not an academic issue. One of the major problems in economic theory is precisely this lack of understanding of how psychological and cultural money is, how emotionally charged our ideas and attitudes to money are. Money is a deeply personal issue and when it comes to unravelling an understanding of money we find ourselves having to poke around in areas of our psychology that we might otherwise wish to leave alone.
I want to anchor this subject out of the world of concept and into the real personal world immediately. To do this, I invite you to take out of your pockets the cash money you are carrying at this precise moment in time. Now that you have it out of your pocket, would you take a few minutes to contemplate and remember the history of this money. How did it come to you in the first place? What were you doing so that it came into your hands? What is its source? Who was involved in the transaction? What kind of person or people were they?
As I write preparing this talk, I also pause and contemplate the cash in my pocket and its history. Remembering where it comes from makes me smile. I earned it in Oslo running a weekend seminar. It was originally given to me in Norwegian crowns by a good friend with whom I regularly work. At the end of the weekend he carefully showed me how much gross income we had received for the seminar. He then removed his and my expenses, and we then discussed how we should divide the moneythe percentage split. We agreed on a 40/60 division in my favour. But we then paused and made certain that both of us felt good about the conclusion. Was he getting what he needed? Was I getting what I needed? Was there any injustice or bad feeling in the transaction? We took thirty seconds silence together to attune to and contemplate whether all felt good in this deal. We concluded that all was well, he handed me the money and we smiled.
I changed the money at the airport and I spent some of that money this morning in a supermarket where I bought some fresh fruit and vegetables. The woman at the till looked depressed and I was perhaps her first customer. I said to her, You look depressed. She came out of her haze and replied that she was just thinking. And her eyes caught mine with a fraction of human acknowledgement that I had recognised that she was human and not a machine. She half smiled.
So I have the change from that transaction in my pocket, and some bananas, carrots and broccoli in my bag.
This is a relatively meaningless but nevertheless rich little tapestry of life I have described. Without exception the money in your pocket or your accounts has some human history to it. Its background is never sterile.
In the talk itself, I will ask members of the audience, having spent a while remembering the history of the cash in their pockets, to turn to a fellow member of the audience and discuss what they remembered. I have led this small exercise many times in many different situations and without exception people are surprised at the level of humane interaction that has been involved with the cash in their pockets.
Even if people are just using plastic swipe cards, there is still a human history of earning and connection and transaction.
I stress here the the word human because I would really like to say that there is a history of humane connection and transaction, but unfortunately and sometimes tragically this all too often not the case. Too many financial transactions are inhumane. They have no sensitivity to the fact that they take place between human beings and in one way or another affect the whole living fabric in which they take place. Humane money transactions have an awareness of the relationships and life that are involved in the transaction. Inhumane transactions give no awareness to the fabulous fabric of life, and its interdependence and needs for growth and care, and is concerned only with the cash and material mechanics of the transaction.
And here, of course, to guide us and encourage us into having a humane and creative attitude to money we look for spiritual guidance and to religious leaders. And, as I said at the beginning, what an unfortunate mess we find. Why should there be this mess?
The answer is only too obvious. Spiritual teachers and religious authorities are human; and even if they have divine consciousness they are in and communicating through human bodies and personalities.
I want to avoid the arguments about whether people are innately good or bad, generous or selfish, and focus on another generalisation which is more easily accepted. The human personality consistently shows itself to be insecure. Homo insecuris might be a more apt description of our species. We have a prolonged and vulnerable infancy and childhood, surrounded by all kinds of psychological and physical challenges and threats. We are immensely sensitive to all kinds of stimulation and we do not have the capability to process, integrate or heal many of the perceptions and stimuli received by our nervous system.
We seek comfort and psychological security wherever we can get it.
Acting purely instinctively, acting thoughtlessly, money can gratify our need for security in various ways. It is obvious how money can buy physical security, but it also buys psychological security as it allows us to create our image and identity. Lose your salary, lose your ability to maintain the mortgage, lose your BMW saloon for a moped, and the sense of identity is so threatened and disorientated that suicide, death, may seem the better option. You can see this syndrome at work, for example, in a child who tantrums that he or she needs a certain shirt or dress for a party; or in executives fighting for the next model of car in order to maintain their status. Both tantrums are based in the threats to psychological security that happen when self-images do not match the images of their peer group.
Perhaps, for those of us in the spirituality business, worst of all we see this insecurity and this need for psychological security manifesting in the pomp of the various religious institutionsthis pomp is international and by no means restricted to the Christian church. In so many ways, the churches and temples of our world are built on the insecurity of men seeking to display authority under the guise of glorifying the divine. I do not want to criticise art that reflects the beauty and glory of nature and the universe. But I cannot forget the transcultural caricature of the fat, smug, authoritarian religious figure, safe in the sanctuary of his sumptuous holy palace, whilst mercenaries of one kind or another, including actual orders of fighting monks, guard the gates against a populace that is in needin need of physical and spiritual nourishment.
Recognising this tendency to religious pomp and selfishness, there is an equal and opposite tendency by those who wish to live a life free of the snares and illusions of materialism.
But the guidance that we receive from these men, usually men, who renounce the material world has a harsh and extreme tone to it. I remember once being impressed by a Buddhist monk who was in an order whose members were not allowed to physically touch any money. I was also impressed by the fact that he had a novitiate whose job it was to gather and carry the money for him. It took me a while to go beyond my initial reaction of admiration to one of outrage.
My outrage had two sources. The first was that the spiritually superior of the two was the one carrying the money; for if money were so harmful why should the innocent novitiate be sullied by it?  The second source of my outrage was this exclusion of money from the world of all that is good and spiritual. There was a kind of conceptual blasphemy happening here. If everything is inherently sacred and of the divine, then everything means everything. Even if we put up some considered boundaries alongside everything to exclude, for example, torture and rape, can we exclude money in the same way?
This is an attitude that pervades much religious posturing towards money. I still find it shocking to focus clearly on what it communicates. Money is excluded from that which is sacred and beautiful and it is, therefore, similar to rape or murder. Money, however, is the medium of communication, is the currency of transaction throughout our society. It is the currency that allows the whole market of goods, services and needs to be met and matched. If money is evil then by a further step of implication, society as a market is also evil. The very fabric of our culture is tainted. What a wide, deep and terrible condemnation this is.
It then follows that to be spiritual, it is required of us that we renounce both money and society. In fact, then, the only way to be spiritual is to be disengaged from money and society.
The attitude of Jesus is also paradoxical. He throws the traders out of the temple and also makes his curiously clever remark about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesars and unto to God that which is Gods. All of this supports the split between society-as-a-market and the sacred.
I dont want to spend much longer in this vein, but I do want to say this. If we recognise that there is essentially a beneficent, loving and creative force running through nature and the universe, it simply does not make sense that it would manifest a whole species living in a manner that is fundamentally flawed.
People are naturally industrious and social. Once we move beyond a small-scale society of say three hundred people, the sets of relationships become both distant and very complex. Money is the fluid currency that brings the whole fantastic complexity of large scale human communities into material relationship. We do not look at any other speciesants or termites or apesand condemn their eco-social system.
I despair of this cynicism and despair. I sympathise with and support those who choose to withdraw to find spiritual solace and inspiration. But I also celebrate the intelligence and creativity of our species and do not exclude any of that creativity from the beauty and rightfulness of sacred creation. Any exclusion of the human market and money is preposterous and, put religiously and extremely, even blasphemous.
When it comes to describing and understanding money and the human market, economic, political and social theory is equally dismal and unfortunately supports this spiritual inclination to separate money and the market from what is beautiful. In our schools, colleges and universities we are taught that money has only one purpose and this purpose is to facilitate the efficient workings of the market. Money is a unit of account invented to facilitate the market. Economic life, it is universally explained in all courses, is premised on the fundamental idea of savage human beings competing for scarce resources in a dangerous environment.
Aristotle, followed two thousand years later by various eighteenth century philosophers, is mainly responsible for this idea that money was invented to facilitate the commercial market. His reasoning is very well-known. If everything is dependent on barter, exchanging actual goods, then who knows how many barters the baker would have to go through until he finally had something which the cobbler would accept in exchange for his shoes? Money clears up all the complications of barter and enables us to get on with business. Hence the business of money is business.
The fundamental theory that economics is about savages competing for scarce resources derives partly from Hobbes and from a description of how the market does work seen from one perspective.
At one level of analysis, this description of money and the market is accurate, but it is not the only possible analysis. There is another perspective on money which provides a substantially different picture. This perspective is anthropological.
At the beginning of this talk I asked you to contemplate the history of the money in your pocket. This history had a very human dimension to it. Look at any of your bills or statements and if you choose to penetrate beyond the simple arithmetic of the figures, you will see stories about your life. That terrible telephone bill is actually the history of many communications to real people. My latest phone bill has two calls that cost 20 each. I winced when I first looked at the figures, but I then realised that they were conversations with my oldest friend. The 40 paid to honour and enjoy that relationship were well worth the financial cost.
You can see that there are two levels of activity and perception here. There are the figures of the money transaction and there is the story behind the figures.
The idea that the sole purpose of money is to be a unit of account that facilitates the smooth working of the commercial market (of savage humans competing for scarce resources in a dangerous environment) completely misses the underlying reality of all the juicy human behaviour.
In actual fact, if you look at the anthropological evidence we find several different reasons why money came into existenceand you have to remember that currency is not just minted notes and coinage, or plastic or electronic transfers. It was originally beads and cattle and shells and ornaments and pigs and even on one Pacific island edible rats.
The anthropological dynamic is clear. People like to give each other gifts and these gifts always signify or mark some special relationship or occasion. These gifts enhance and empower, respect and celebrate relationship. This is no different today when you take flowers to a friend or relative or give birthday and Christmas presents. The gifts enhance and facilitate, they mark and give enjoyment to a relationship. In most tribal communities gifts are also given to other significant beings in the community and ecology: the spirits of harvest and hunting, mountains and rivers, the seasons and the sun.
In many tribes it became customary to give a certain object as a gift: a bead, or animal or shell. These beads or shells or animals then became a currency for communicating, marking and celebrating relationships and occasions. This currency was also used for greeting strangers. To give a gift is a most fundamental human behaviour that signals friendship.
The most important thing to understand here is this: The currency of beads or shells came into being before the commercial market. There was first of all a market of relationships and the currency was used to honour these relationships.
Every financial transaction we have ever been involved with is part of a chain of connections between real people living real lives. When someone buys their Japanese car, they are coming into relationship with a whole string of people. Ultimately their money is putting food on peoples tables and paying rents. This is very personal.
Anthropologically the market place is also not just a place for acquiring or exchanging or selling commercial artifacts. It is a place that people come to for fun, for information, for connection, for social ritual. People usually love markets. The need to buy and sell at the great weekly rural markets that happen all across the world is only one level of social reality. All kinds of other things are happening.
The only markets that exist today where there is no human interaction, but where the human ramifications are enormous, is in the computer controlled international commodity, stocks and currency markets. Here we see the deus ex machina. Here we see incredibly huge transactions, affecting hundreds of millions of people, taking place with no human monitoring, no human awareness, purely the arithmetic of cash numbers seeking profit. This is unusual and needs to be legislated and guided.
In the main, though, scratch the surface of any financial accounts and you will find people connecting.
Tragically, orthodox economic theory does not even support this self-evident fact. All the political and theoretical arguments about financial and economic behaviour are framed by the one classic concept of savage creatures competing for scarce resources. This is a shallow, dangerous and hopeless interpretation. It is dangerous because it allows for no humane values to enter economic theory and leaves us only with bottom-line arithmetical cash values. It is dangerous because it conceptually supports only the men who enjoy competing in the market. It is dangerous because, not tempered by a deeper and more true appreciation of what is actually happening in the market, it discards an awareness of the human and ecological costs as irrelevant and naive. The business of money is business. It is shallow because it does not encounter human truth. It is hopeless because it contains no affection for or belief in the spirit of humanity. All of this underlies the accepted abuses of capitalism and financial imperialism in its various forms.
In our homes and friendships and smaller businesses we know that money serves a different purpose and we do not behave like savages competing for scarce resources in a dangerous environment. We instinctively want to create community and enjoyable relationships.
But it seems that the religious institutions and spiritual teachers of the last two thousand years have been so caught up in the competitive culture that they could not even begin to perceive clearly the fluid and useful beauty of money as a currency of creative relationship. The distrust of money and finance by spiritual seekers is understandable but not to be copied.
One of our problems in seeing through to the creativity of money is the monumentous size and momentum of the world economy. It is really hardly surprising that we are in a state of confusion and what Alvin Tofler dubbed future shock. The world economy as we know it only began to come into existence some four or five hundred years ago. It began in earnest barely one hundred and fifty years ago. Its major growth has been in the last ten years. The electronic trading revolution is very recent and the changes are happening so fast that technology becomes obsolete now within months. Millennia ago it took millennia for technology to go out of date. Today it can happen in weeks.
This has happened hand in hand with an extraordinary population explosion. Ten thousand years ago there were barely ten million souls on the planet. Today there are five billion, five billion actors in the world economy. The impact is furious and immediate. We are living in an unprecedented era of furious change.
This change has created an alienation from the natural world and social injustice on a visible and intolerable scale, the death of thirty thousand children a day from malnutrition bearing witness.
It is hardly surprising that it is difficult to feel good about a world economy facilitated by money that is the basis of all this change. That phrase feel good can have a terrible ring about it, echoing with carelessness and egocentrism. But feeling good is an essential part of the religious life because feeling good is part of the experience of feeling connected to the divine flow and creation of the universe.
One of my intentions here then is to encourage people to begin to feel good about money, to begin to experiment with a perspective that has money dancing for God.
The challenge now, as it always has been, is to bring some humane and sacred awareness into money transactions. We can see today in caricature the awful paradoxes and injustices of the global economy: the extraordinary opulence at one end of the spectrum and abject poverty at the other; transnational corporations with turnovers greater than those of many nations with executives flying in private jets against single commodity developing economies struggling in subsistence. We do not need to argue about the morality of such disparities. We do need to note that we have no choice but to turn the situation around if environmental disaster is to be avoided, if frightening inner cities are to be transformed, if a split between the South and the North, between resentful developing nations and controlling developed nations is not to escalate into a future cold war that will make the friction between the communist and capitalist bloc of the last decades look tame.
The power is genuinely in our individual hands because the world economy is created by us and is dependent upon the millions and millions of consumers, small actors and small investors who together fuel and push the markets. But what will dynamise us into behaving in a more sacred and aware way with our money?
We have to lose our sense of impotence in the face of a seemingly uncontrollable materialistic global money market. To borrow Marxs useful phrase, we have to throw off the false consciousness of believing that the market and money are what we have been told they are. Money is a human and humane creation which brings us into fluid relationship with each other. This is creative and good for us. The market is not simply about making money but is about providing an arena in which people can express their creativity, can come into appreciation and community with other people, can fulfil their lives.
This message is crucial for a spiritual attitude to money, for if spirituality is about anything it is about being connected to the beneficence and the love of the universe, and not excluding that grace from any facet of life. To understand money as a creative force is hopeful and any religious approach must include hope. A sense of hope, and a sense of the love inherent in all creation, motivate us to be creatively aware and they lift us out of a complaining or apathetic stupor which pervades most of our money lives.
We can, in fact, take one step further and engage in this new attitude in an even more dynamic way. At the risk of being quoted out of context, we have to learn truly how to love money. We have to throw off the cynicism, and the doom and gloom, and the untrue theories and concepts, and we have to engage with money as a fluid medium of communication.
Like language itself, we understand that money is a fabulous artifact and that its flow and usage depend completely upon us.
At which point we come to both an existential and a spiritual reality. There is no point arguing about what other people and other organisations are doing with their money. First of all we have to clean up our own act. What does this mean? This is very simple. I have already said most of it.
We need to expand our awareness and change our attitudes. In general we have to try to understand the creativity of money and of economic life. Money emerged as a currency of relationship and not as a tool for a purely materialistic competitive market. Looked at in this way we can begin to possess a motivation and an argument for confronting the thoughtless materialism of a market that is concerned only with cash values and excludes values of other worth.
Most essentially we need to bring humane awareness into every single one of our financial transactions and neither receive nor give money without pausing to be aware of the other people and living beings involved in that transaction. Every time you receive or give money you are involved in a transaction that has within it connection and relationship. This applies to buying a 50p newspaper, a 100,000 house, clothes, food, shares. It applies to the people we pay for services and the people who pay us, to the companies and organisations with whom we do business.
This is my plea to you. Never again receive or give moneywhether in cash or plastic or electronic formwithout pausing to acknowledge the human being involved and the ramifications of the transaction.
Please notice that I am not telling anyone what to do with their money. I am just saying give it awareness. If and when you give money to a beggar in the street, pause to do it thoughtfully. When buying a newspaper, acknowledge the vendor and also be aware of the other beings involved in the purchase: printers, journalists, distributors, advertisers, trees . . . This will lead you to making new decisions about your money.
Living in a multicultural community I chose to buy my newspapers in Asian and Afro-Caribbean shops in order to do some inter-ethnic community building. Thats a pompous way of putting it. In fact, I was making friends with new shopkeepers.
Whenever I pay people for services I thank them. I do not always go for the lowest quote; instead I do business with someone I like. And if you cannot afford to do that, you can usually afford to exclude the worst ten per cent.
We can humanise all our money relationships by pausing to give them awareness. I know several people who, before paying bills, light a candle and give thanks. Of course giving awareness can lead us into noticing things we would rather ignorebut this is precisely why awareness is one of the greatest tools of the spiritual path. Awareness also leads us into social and political activism. Can we continue to buy goods that are partly produced by child slave labour? Can we have a relationship with a business whose basic ethos is contrary to our own? Can we continue to pay taxes and thus be fully engaged with the whole business of government without then becoming more active in one way or another?
Awareness is in itself a form of enlightenment. As soon as we pause to let the intelligent mind look at something previously unseen, that which was unseen now becomes enlightened, illuminated. The enlightenment can then be augmented with generosity and goodwill.
Generosity and goodwill with our money is also a religious act. It is an act of natural religion. Throughout the universe, from the first breath of creation, through the nuclear explosions of the sun that give us heat and light, through the bounty of nature, we can see and experience beauty and generosity and flow. When we give away some of our money with an attitude that comes from the heart, with a sense of gratitude and appreciation, we then act in the same way as the source of which we are a part.
This then is my second plea. Regularly give away some of your money and when you do it, do it with love, knowing that you are part of the endless emerging energy of the universe.
I cannot imagine the Big Bang or the Sun whinging about all the energy I put out and nobody appreciates me. To give and be generous is natural. Every parent knows this. It is modelled supremely for us by the great cosmic parent.
Finally, there is another spiritual idea that tantalises and entertains me. Many people are worried about the increasing population and the inability of the Earth to support us, but we, like every other species, emerge out of the Earth.
We are not separate from Gaia but emerge from her and everything we use and manufacture is also part of Earth. There is a sensible pattern that appears to run throughout creation and the universe, and might also run through us.
From this perspective it is possible that the population explosion is not a problem. It coincides with the creation of a new human culture, a genuine global village, an electronically connected planetary community. The electronic network has been called a global brain and Teilard de Chardin felt a deep and divine mystery happening through humanity as it entered into this new culture. It is impossible not to be impressed by the fact that humanity for the first time is becoming self-conscious of itself as a global community and this can be felt as some kind of mystic event. Indeed there is something wondrous about what is happening to us all.
I do not for one moment want to ignore either the social or environmental crises that need immediate and dramatic attentionbut look at the context! A primate with a complex brain, a naked ape that previously wandered round in small isolated clan groupings has evolved to cover the planet and to become self-aware of itself. The electronic networking is miraculous. Your ability to purchase something manufactured twelve thousand miles away is also a miracle. We have been through the industrial revolution and are now passing through an electronic and information revolution. All through this fabric of relationships, money is the currency that allows the communication and the transfers. Money is the circulating blood of this organism. I have heard money called the deepest incarnation of God. Ezra Pound called money the anima mundi, the soul of the world.
In its movement and flows, money is already dancing. It dances to the tunes that we play for it. If in our financial lives we choose to behave with awareness, dignity and goodwill then we can dramatically alter our own personal economies and affect the culture of the local, national and global economies. Money can dance for the creative good of all life.