Over half of Canadian teenagers openly say they have spiritual needs; only 15% of Americans say that they are neither spiritual nor religious; and even 75% of Brits claim that they are aware of a spiritual dimension to experience, a rise of 27% in 13 years.
So why do so many of us hide away our spiritual contemplations, intuitions and convictions in business and public settings?
I believe its because being openly spiritual is The Last Great Social Taboo, judged as shameful, embarrassing or stupid in our technocratic, über-rationalist culture. Why do we continue to allow our friends, communities, workplaces and ecological systems to suffer when self-love, brother-love and planet-love can transform all suffering in its path?
You may have experienced breaking the taboo. Perhaps you were sitting in a meeting or having lunch with a colleague. You slip up and mention the 'S' word. As you do, you catch that look in people's eyes. You have been condemned as an intellectual heretic or nice, but dumb, hippy. You dared come out of the spiritual closet for a moment and you paid a heavy price.
I am sure that I have lost clients, funding, TV and book deals and press columns because I have emphatically said that I am spiritual and that my work is influenced by love. We would not tolerate this kind of prejudice in any other sphere of life. So why is designing projects and policies grounded in connection and compassion still so frowned upon, especially in the so-called "progressive" movement of activists, entrepreneurs, technologists and policy wonks?
The costs are considerable; perhaps even terminal for our species. With so many afraid to come out of the spiritual closet, our businesses, political parties and government departments are robbed of the greatest source of positive change and powerful decision-making on the planet: The empathy and creativity that emanate naturally from a human heart that feels connected, whole and loved.
To make it graspable (and at the risk of turning the ineffable into something prescriptive), we might describe spirituality (that 'S' word) as experiencing, inquiring into and acting from a sense connection (or love, if we're really being direct). Around this, other ideas may arise, which may or may not scale up into religiosity. However, as one participant in a study said, "religion is to spirituality as Interflora is to a bluebell in a wood." The crucial error of the (new) atheists, to conflate religion and spirituality, has thrown the planet-saving baby out with the (often planet-degrading) bath water.
Without heartfelt spirituality, whether secular as mine is, or part of a cultural or religious group, is that we rely on addictions to mask the suffering that is inevitable when we remain disconnected. Our addictions (whether to alcohol, drugs, KPIs, cheap credit and energy or unsustainable growth) are designed to relieve that suffering; but end up destroying everything.
The great news is that every human being alive can hack this disconnect by looking within. There is no need for God. No need for angel cards. No need to smell like patchouli oil or even to do yoga. In fact, there are no need for any New Age aesthetics at all. All we need to live a profoundly spiritual life is the simple, but unexpectedly life-changing, experience of feeling tangibly, inalienably, unavoidably interconnected; and so no longer alienated and afraid.
Once we embody and embed this spirituality - not just in bumper stickers but in making tough life decisions about things like investments, career paths and business models - we naturally want to transform everything to maximise human thriving. And we do not need regulation or activism to get us into action. We do it effortlessly. It was this secret that Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr all discovered on their own expressly spiritual journeys. Most intellectuals, atheists and activists conveniently forget this when they use them as exemplars of great leadership.
To enjoy this power to consciously lead transformative change, we must first let go of the defensive cynicism and intellectual arrogance that lie at the heart of 'intelligent' society. On my journey from Cambridge-educated scientist to wisdom teacher and heart-led entrepreneur, I first had to relinquish all my prejudices.
As I detail in my book Switch On, along the way, I discovered that we do not need to be religious or New Age to be profoundly spiritual. We can be both spiritual and secular, loving both rational science, (with our minds) and intuitive spirituality (felt in the whole body) as long as we do not use science as an excuse to be dogmatic or cynical or use spirituality as an excuse to be superstitious or flaky. As I explain in a talk at Aspen Ideas Festival, secular spirituality is aligned with modern science because they describe two aspects of the same reality.
Science has been massively successful at understanding physical reality. Yet it is now telling us that depression is now the number one burden on global health (it was fourth in 1990). Millennials are diagnosed twice as much as Baby Boomers. Suicide is the main cause of death amongst young men in the US and UK. This year, suicide will kill more than HIV / AIDS, road accidents and heart disease. However, an active spiritual practice can be 80% protective in families that are otherwise at very high risk for depression. And having an abiding sense of purpose increases cellular health and decreases post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Alzheimer's.
After a series of spectacular breakdowns and burnouts, I realised that if science had all the answers, as a scientist I should have no need for such suffering. The only other choice was to realise that science has some of the answers; and that our hearts have others. Science can tell us that living with purpose, connection and love is effective. But only heartfelt wisdom, whether we call it spiritual or not, can tell us how to have and hold on to these most powerful experiences; and then act on them in everyday life.
So rather than cower behind the closet door, those of us who believe in the power of spirituality need to break this last great taboo. Only by being in solidarity together can we bring more heart into every enterprise, big or small, and ground every project in love. Then, and only then, will we get to see the world that we all yearn for, where everyone is free to thrive and not just the lucky few.
We are the ones we have been waiting for: Change-agents that can confidently bring more love, truth and creativity into every area of public life without shame or superstition.