Thoughts on Spiritual Sensibility – A Short Discourse
‘Spirituality is like a bird: hold it tightly and it chokes: hold it too loosely and it flies away’
- Rabbi Hugo Glyn, reform rabbi, broadcaster, and leading voice in interfaith dialogue
We humans - and consequently the world on which we depend – face multiple crises. Ecological, economic, democratic – each significant in its own right but also crucially interlinked to the others. Major and fundamental change in our ways are seemingly required - yet we struggle to face up to the issues. Change is virtually non-existent. We skirt around the problems, looking for reasons ‘not to’ rather than ideas on ‘how to’. We would seem in a need of invigorated ‘ways of being’.
The issues of course are genuinely difficult - large, multi-faceted, and systemic with no easy visualization or fix. But there is more to it than that. We seem lost in a swirling tide of materialism, unable to resolve the paradox of the material benefits we have around us and the destructive forces realised in their creation and consumption. Never before have we had such levels of material wealth, but it is dulling our senses to its problems. Intellectually the crises can be traced to their material and economic roots, but the phenomenon of consumption entrances us, holding us in the sway of the social logic of widespread creature comforts and relative lack of poverty. At the same time our platform of democracy, political ethics and truth has been critically eroded. We lack political leadership, and neoliberalism rampages, perpetuating attachment to our constructed identities, further stoking insatiable material desires.
We would seem to need more than intellectual imagination. Escape from the treadmill would seem to need us each gaining new connection with meaning, value, and purpose - a new inner compass. It’s not about totally forgetting and foregoing material comforts but each having the embodied confidence to move beyond the disorientating fetish of materialism through a vibrant and healthier disposition towards ourselves, others, and the world around us. We need a new spiritual sensibility. Something that promotes the likes of goodness, truth, and love.
Such a spiritual is something beyond candles, calm and 'being in the zone'...something even beyond well-being. And it’s also something beyond consciousness, meditation, and self-transcendence. It’s more about meaning and fulfilment than happiness per see though happiness is of course part of it. It’s also more than religion....though religion may be a way of realising.
My spiritual sensibility is grounded in the intangible of what it means to be human in a world where everything is innately interconnected. Fundamentally it is about an embodied awareness of what we are, who we are and how we relate which comes from within us whilst extending and reaching far out beyond us. It’s something borne out of connections and connectedness across ourselves, others and the earth.
What characterises the spiritual is that rather than being the emotional, psychological, philosophical, ethical, cultural, aesthetic, or whatever, it is something that is within and between all these qualities – and cannot be subsumed within any of them. Spiritual does not refer so much to a discrete thing but rather to the things – physical and metaphysical - in between. An awareness of how things are from experiencing ourselves as part of the world.
‘As a phenomenon spirituality is something subjective, experiential, non-rational, unverifiable, and serendipitous in it eruptions’
- Kieran Flanagan, writer and sociologist
Interconnectedness is something innate to the universe. Indeed, at the level the basic building blocks studied in quantum physics, ‘things’ only exist in relation to others. Karen Barad has a doctorate in particle physics and is currently Professor of Philosophy and Consciousness at the University of California. In her book Meeting the Universe Halfway Barad applies the learnings from quantum physics to the social at a macro level. Her insight leads her to the term ‘intra-action’ as that inter-activity which through its existence between things gives rise, and becomes part of, ‘being’.
More directly related to the arts, Professor Nick Wilson at Kings College (London) defines aesthetic experience as the outcome of ‘being in relations’. His book, The Space That Separates is a passionate and intensely argued case for the value and need in us redefining art as ‘the skilled practice of giving shareable form to our experiences of being-in-relation with the real - or that beyond our direct observation. He describes this being in-relation as something which is greater than the sum of the parts and not contained in total by any of them. Something distributed among the parts, with no part holding it in its entirety. In communicating such aesthetic experience, he argues that we behold life’s betweenness – the space that separates.
I can buy into all of this, but I choose to use to use the words ‘spiritual sensibility’ – or rather to borrow them from Jonathan Rowsen of Prospectiva. Spiritual sensibility overlaps and aligns with the concepts of intra-action and the aesthetic, but I believe is more intentional. In Rowsen’s terms, spiritual sensibility is a disposition towards reality characterised by concern for the fullness of life and experienced through simultaneous intimations of aliveness, goodness, understanding and meaning. If we can get it right it is to do with the feeling of being alive, the conviction that something matters, the intuition that the world can make sense, and the experience that life is meaningful. Crucially, it is a dispositional quality able to feel, appreciate and respond to complex and subtle influences.
Moreover, spiritual sensibility is not a skill or trait that can be tacked on to an unchanged person. To change your sensibility is to fundamentally reorient or transform yourself. Spiritual sensibility is thus about the reorienting of our own personal disposition to ourselves, each other, and the world as a whole. If we can find this space of ‘being human together within the world’ then it may, again in Rowsen’s words, ‘provide immunity to the idea that we need to consume to validate ourselves’. We then may be able to tackle climate change, global injustice, democratic decline, and all those seemingly overwhelming and frighteningly complex problems that we face. Not through compliance with government intervention, but rather through taking charge individually of our own lives.
‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change’
- Carl Rogers, one of the founders of a humanistic approach to psychology
I offer my work not as a dictat, but as a framework for contemplative thought through which others may develop their own understandings and share the journey.