Spiritual what?

I am writing this in the CitizenM hotel in Manhattan, contemplating two weeks of speaking engagements in the US to promote Mindapples and A Mind for Business. To my surprise, I find myself with a rare moment of quiet to post about some of the new projects I've started working on recently, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts here, because, well, sharing is good, right?

Those of you who've followed some of my talks over the past year will know I've been developing an interest "secular spirituality". I spoke about this at Secret Garden Party, Wilderness and Sunday Assembly London last year, and have begun researching it this year, in between my other commitments. It's a controversial topic, and one which I'm sure has the potential to land me in trouble, but I'm drawn to it for a number of reasons which I will try to explain.

For nearly a decade now, I've been working in and around the field of "wellbeing". Whilst I personally prefer to talk about "mental health", because my focus has been on exploring how we manage our minds and keep ourselves mentally healthy, wellbeing has been an inescapable and at times useful term in the development of Mindapples.

The trouble with wellbeing is that, for all its utility in focussing people's minds on the softer side of debates, it is such a broad term that it can encompass many things which are a long way from science or medicine, or even mainstream research and public policy. From mindfulness meditation at one end, to prayer at the other, wellbeing and spiritual practices seem closely associated with wellbeing in the mind of the public.

What's more, it hasn't escaped my notice that books like mine are often filed into the "Mind, body and spirit" section of the bookshop - leaving me to wonder, I know what "mind" and "body" mean, but what do book stockists mean by "spirit"? Are bookshops spiritually-minded? Does the publishing industry have a view on mind-body dualism? Do they believe in the eternal soul?

Or - and this seems more likely - has the word "spirit" become a placeholder for something more complex?

So there's that. And there is a health connection too. For many years I've been working to build an inclusive, grassroots conversation about the health of our minds through our campaigning work at Mindapples, and I have noticed that many of the parts of health and social care that focus on people's emotional and psychological wellbeing are closely aligned to the church, and spiritual practices more widely. From chaplains in hospitals to the NHS mentioning "spiritual health" in its strategy documents, spirituality is being used as a placeholder for many of the more intangible aspects of healthcare, and I think it deserves closer scrutiny.

So the connection to my other work should I hope be clear: spirituality, like mental health and wellbeing, is an important component of how we can live well and treat each other better. So what do we need to do, if anything, to bring spirituality into the 21st Century? The first thing, I would argue, is to develop a secular view of spirituality, one which everyone can share. 

The term "secular", as I'm using it here, doesn't necessarily mean atheist or non-religious; by it, I mean I am seeking what spirituality means to people of all faiths and no faith, and trying to find some common ground on which we can all agree. The term as it is currently used can be so vague as to be actively unhelpful, creating spaces for fuzzy thinking and bad logic and causing us to talk at cross purposes on topics which I think demand focus and clarity, from healthcare to inter-faith dialogue. How are we to talk about the "spiritual insight" that the Cabinet Office says Bishops bring to the House of Lords, if we can't even agree what "spiritual" means?

So my interest in this topic is first and foremost to bring clarity. I want to understand what people mean by spirituality, and start establishing some basic suggestions for how we could be using the word more accurately and effectively. In doing so, I hope to create a little more space for people to talk about the spiritual side of life without fear of being treated like a hippy or a zealot, and for science, healthcare and public policy to engage in this conversation in a way which is genuinely inclusive and not built on contentious and divisive claims about the nature of reality, whichever side of the debate they come from. 

So, not much then. 

I am also aware that these conversations are fraught with pitfalls, and writing as I am in the United States, I can already sense that it's a very different conversation to have here than it is in the predominantly secular UK. To talk about spirituality without the supernatural, or propose material alternatives to traditional religions, is in some ways to take sides in a long-running argument, and I don't know if that can be avoided. So for the sake of clarity, I can confirm that (a) I don't deny the existence of a supernatural dimension to the universe, but (b) I don't live as if there was one, and (c) I think if we do discover there is a spiritual dimension to the universe, this will be a wonderful breakthrough in science, and one to be celebrated and studied. So you can decide for yourselves which tribe that puts me into, if tribes are your thing.

For my part, though, I'm mostly interested in listening at the moment. So let's start, as so many of my projects do, with a question: what does spirituality mean to you? How do you use the term, and what role does this word play in your life, if any? 

I would love to hear what you think about all this in the comments below, whoever you are. And be nice please: it's good for the soul.


Last week I gave a talk on peer learning with Ben Vershbow of NY think-tank if:book. He's been doing some fabulous things in collaborative reading, which I think could have big implications for the way blogs and discussion forums interact. If:book have developed a hack for the Wordpress platform which places comments to the right of each paragraph of a blog post. It's based on marginalia in old-fashioned academic texts and is intended to allow collaborative annotation of academic texts - but it's such a simple tool that I think it's got much wider implications.

We've been playing with an installation of the system based on the talk we gave at www.futureofthebook.org/freeschool, with some success.

The software itself is available for free at www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress. I strongly urge you to check it out and put it to good use!

Open Learning, Open Technology

I had a fantastic meeting this week at the Open University's Knowledge Media Institute, who were generous enough to show me some of the incredible software they've been developing. I think the standout product was the fantastic Compendium, a software tool for mapping and analysing arguments. It's free to download and I can already see incredible applications for it in user experience modelling, process analysis and team collaboration. I'm really looking forward to trying it out in some real-life situations.

They also had some brilliant remote-working tools, including FlashMeeting - probably the simplest and most effective video-conferencing tool I've seen - plus a couple of other tools for making people in remote locations feel part of a collaborative community. Great stuff.

The OU are also leading the way in open-sourcing their learning curriculum with the OpenLearn project. If you haven't seen it already, please do take a look: as usual, it's amazing what you can get for free these days. We're looking into how we can promote their content via School of Everything now.