- An especially interesting show this week! I can't help but see multiple parallels between Alain de Botton's thinking and the current thinking in my academic discipline of Holistic Health & Wellness and my "side" profession as a life coach.
When considering the whole person, wellness educators and many whole life coaches acknowledge that, in addition to physical, intellectual, affective, sexual, and social dimensions, human beings have a spiritual dimension. It is a fundamental part of human nature. The brain is wired for it. In general, every human culture in every age has also acknowledged it in one way or another. The spiritual dimension is that part of our aspect which is our existential will, which seeks meaning and purpose, attempts to understand our place in the larger universe, yearns for life-affirming relational connections, and explores the interface between our known physical world and the unseen energy world. This is not a "religious" dimension. Religion is seen as a cultural construct which has been and continues to be a vehicle - a means to understand and experience the spiritual realm. Like different modes of transportation, different organized religions have different "structural designs" or sets of beliefs. A "faith" or believe system generally includes a narrative that explains "reality" in terms of both human knowledge/experience and also the subtle, mysterious unknowable human puzzlings. Also like different modes of transportation, different organized religions develop differing sets of "operating procedures" - an "art of living" (as your guest put it) based on the belief system of "the way the universe works". Religion is a means, not an inherent human quality. So, one can be spiritual and not "religious" ... and one can be spiritual and "religious" ..., but one cannot be a-spiritual and "religious".
Another understanding of the wellness community is that the "prime directive" of any living system is to survive and thrive - to unfold and evolve into its best self - to reach it's highest potential. Wellness is the optimal level of health where the person or community is dynamically functioning at the highest capacity of which it is capable within the environmental matrix in which it is embedded. In order for this to occur, the whole system must be in optimal operation and balance. For an individual, this means all facets of human nature must be supported and nurtured, including the spirit.
I think those material items, beliefs, affects, behaviors, and environmental characteristics we identify as "good" and/or "ethical" and/or "moral" are really those things which promote not only our survival but also our capacity to thrive - our wellness. - both as individuals and as communities of living systems. That Alain de Botton found himself attracted to religious music, rituals, and architecture is, I think, the human spirit being drawn to some of those things which it needs to grow toward wellness. "In-spiring" music, rituals, architecture are not, as Mr. de Botton observes, the inventions of religion only. They come from other cultural institutions as well, but often as unexpected delights. I think one reason religious music, rituals, and architecture can so readily stir the spirit of followers and non-followers alike is because they are purposefully and consistently created to do so. The issue for many like de Botton is when the underpinning belief system is too incongruent with their individual paradigms of belief about "the way things are". Religions throughout the ages have not been shy about eclectically incorporating and adapting new cultural concepts and practices to fit their paradigms of beliefs. I agree with de Botton and others doing similar things, ... why not the other way around? There's no culturally-recognized patent on the use of ritual as a contemplative practice - no general copyright on a certain style of music being used in only one context. Flying buttresses, domes, columns, arches, and decorative mosaic inlays are not exclusive to places of religious worship. I am intrigued by de Botton's School of Life. When students walk through the doors of my college classrooms, I often tell them they are coming into a course about life - their life. I can relate to Alain de Botton's realization that there is a pervasive underlying assumption that "the art of living" is just something we're supposed to know. The most common comment I've heard over the years from students entering a required "Personal Wellness" course is, "Why do we have to take this class?. It's just common sense stuff!" and the corollary - which they don't say out loud but which is a common expectation - "This course should be easy!" But as de Botton remarked about the art of living, "It's complicated!" Especially when we are addressing the whole person (and not just the physical stuff like diet and exercise)!
One difference I note is that the operating procedures of de Botton's "School" seem modeled after religious tradition, even while the "school" to tries to differentiate itself and it's beliefs from it. (I suppose the use of "School" in the name is a purposeful way to distance the endeavor from what might otherwise look like "religion".) I work in public academia (a "secular" venue) where, when it comes to spiritual wellness, I have to be inclusive of all belief systems - religious and non-religious (atheism, agnosticism, humanism, "nothingism", ...) - without advocating (or even appearing to lean toward) any one point of view.
It seems to me that many of these "-ism" and "nondenominational" movements - especially in the West - are defined by religion. That is, their beliefs grow out of what they don't believe from the various major world religions. The starting point is organized religion (perhaps because it does involve a majority of people in most cultures) and then there's a moving away from it. Yet the gathering format doesn't seem to be abandoned. There still seems to be an unquenched need to reform and re-invent another community of meaning-and-guidance seekers taking up similar practices informed by a different set of beliefs. Is this a case where the baby (i.e. acknowledgement of our spiritual nature) is being thrown out with the bath water? .... And then those who threw out the bath water having a nagging feeling that something is missing but they can't quite bring it to consciousness? ... (And then developing a new passion for being foster parents or collecting baby dolls?!)
In wellness, we begin with the premise - a theory based in research - (a "belief", I suppose some would triumphantly point out!) that there is a spiritual facet which is integral to our human nature. Like all the other health dimensions, there are characteristics and qualities that it manifests and contributes to the whole and there are behaviors and practices that we can incorporate into our life-style to support and nurture it. (And of course, as with the other human dimensions, there are behaviors and practices that can diminish and sicken the spirit as well.) So we start in a "secular" (academic, scientific) place and allow the possibility of moving toward religion. We look at those practices which engage the spiritual dimension (mindfulness; volunteerism; meditation/prayer; philanthropy; "emptying" practices such as fasting, seculsion, abstention, etc.) which research shows contribute to good health. We consider why/how they do so. Many of these lifestyle behaviors are encouraged by many of the major world religions so it is not surprising that regular attendance at religious gatherings is correlated with longevity & good health. But it's important to remember that this research does not support a causal relationship between a particular belief system, an exclusively religious practice, or even religion in general. The impact of religious affiliation and practice on an individual is highly idiosyncratic. Many people seem to benefit . Others do not. Thus, using a particular religion as a means to nurture and sustain a well spirit (or other dimensions of wellness; e.g. social) is seen as but one tool among many. Pathways for enhancing spiritual wellness are unique for each individual and each community of spirituality-seekers.
I'm pleased to learn of Alain de Botton's noble, trail-blazing path and and appreciate his manner of sharing his insights ("evangelizing"? :-) ) But if you can't go to London to participate in the "School of Life" there, you might want to check out the field of holistic wellness and the emerging profession of life coaching (not to be confused with the latest specialization trend of "health" coaching which is being used by health insurance companies and employers to drive down health care costs). True holistic wellness educators and/or one-on-one life coaches teach and facilitate the processes of self-discovery and "thrivancy" - to help the student/client clarify his/her own wants/needs/values/motivations, increase awareness of possibilities, guide exploration of the impacts and consequences of their current and potential beliefs/attitudes/behaviors, and encourage the student/client in creative choice-making that results in his/her own unique unfolding toward their own optimal self. And the only prerequisite is that you are human. :-)
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