Enlarging spirituality in Scouting – from spiritual development to metaphysics

Some years ago, I was manning a flip-chart paper with the title “Spiritual Development” written in bold characters on top at one of the strategy-defining European Symposia. Row after row of people came by, leaving their ideas about what this might be and what could we do in Scouting about the matter. There were the usual, tame ideas one expects in this setting, mainly in the “spiritual but not religious” realm. Even the representatives of religious associations seemed happy to endorse this somewhat enlarged view, as long as they did not really need to adopt it within their own ranks!

But then someone came to me and, puzzled by the various discussions around the paper, asked me why are we even putting the question for debate? Not only that Baden-Powell puts God in almost all instances of his Scouting fundamentals, but, more than anything, the need to believe in something higher, transcendental, is rooted in very essence of the human being. Regardless if you call that higher being God or the Great-Juju-Up-the-Mountain, it answers an innate human need, therefore we ought to help young people discover it.

I guess I answered something PC and polite but I remember thinking that it was all monk-talk, at best maybe true for some. I felt the guy was confusing the need of explanations that humans, as a pattern-seeker species, have and which led, in primitive times, to some supernatural interpretations of the world, with a genuine desire to find some Supreme Being or Spiritual Truth, outside space and time.

I never felt the need to invoke anything beyond objective reality and I was pretty sure I was human.

Except when I wanted to impress someone in my teen years with my “deep” sensitivity by quoting sages and saints, I was always pretty convinced that the Universe doesn’t care. The mountains I liked to climb were not “claiming lives”, the Earth was not “my mother” and the Moon was not a materialization of “the feminine energy” – it is all mindless fields, forces and particles obeying patterns defined by chance in the first millisecond after the Big Bang.

I was just glad that some billions of those fields, forces and particles happened to come together and be “me” for a while.  

Ironically, my life in Scouting almost always brought me in contact with “spiritual development” one way or another. I guess God does work in mysterious ways 🙂 In my first training I’ve been told we should consider education in five areas of development (they will become six some time later): physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual. All equally important and all branded in every person’s DNA.

I often felt incomplete because I was really into growing in all the other areas, but never really experienced the need for a proper transcendental dimension for my life experience. Teleology didn’t make much sense to me and I was certainly not ready to accept any truth obtained through revelation by people who lived thousands of years ago. Not even when religion became the “cool” thing to have after the fall of Communism and it’s imposed materialistic influence. Later, fashionable approaches like Eastern mysticism (with its most recent forced analogies with quantum mechanics, sharing mainly the fact that they are made by people who never actually studied physics) made even less sense to me.

I learned to steer clear of any article which has more than two of these terms associated: consciousness, quantum, field, energy and observer! Also keep my pets way from any QuantumVet!

The fact that I never felt the need to develop spiritually (at least not in the sense of searching for One Answer of all life and Universe, unless this was “42”) never prevented me to offer spiritual opportunities for my Scout group. We’ve done Scout’s Owns, we hiked to salute the Sun at dawn, we made Promises in churches and we provided the kids with awe moments in nature!

Today I believe that we focused on the wrong things – the Scouts were not really in quest of spiritual guidance and that genuine need was not as widespread as many liked to believe. But it took me 20 years!

Later on, working at national level, I came in contact with the immense diversity of approaches to “spiritual development”. I was involved in defining the “lowest common denominator” definition of spirituality for Scouting in Romania. We knew each local group will interpret the educational aims through the lenses of their local culture and traditions, but at least it was agreed that spiritual development was an intrinsic need for every Romanian.

I believe that this approach, which I saw replicated at many levels, was only trying to avoid deciding if Scouting is religious or not. A literal interpretation of Baden-Powell’s writings clearly puts God as a non-negotiable, so Scouting should be religious. If it is not, then we should remove the reference to God in all fundamental texts. Expanding God to cover any sort of spiritual endeavor, from nature-worshiping to shamanism, is hiding behind words! 

It took me years of listening to many people smarter than me to realize that what people are longing for is not necessarily a spiritual reality but a meaning to their own, Earth-based, life. Most of the questions spurred in true “spiritual” circumstances were almost never about higher powers and spirits in the sky: they were either ontological – what is the true nature of reality?, ethical – how do we define “good” and “bad”? – or, in best cases, epistemological – how do we achieve knowledge about what surrounds us? If we can only know the universe through our five senses, just how much of reality are we completely, hopelessly oblivious of?

Many built their own ontology based on religious beliefs, some created a patchwork of myths and some adopted a naturalistic narrative. But without exception, all were looking for a meaning for their existence – just that not all answers were “spiritual”. God became one potential answer among others.

An animal, a god or something in between?

Meaning—in the sense of significance and purpose—is probably the greatest asset any human being can possess. Psychotherapist Victor Frankl, who practiced mental health care while detained in Nazi concentration camps, asserted that the will-to-meaning is the most dominant human drive, in contrast to Nietzsche’s will-to-power and Freud’s will-to-pleasure [1]. Meaning is so powerful that, as Jung remarked, it “makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything” [2].

Many of us—myself included—see meaning as a higher value than power or pleasure. Our motivation to live rests in there being meaning in our lives.

The will to pleasure sets man up as an animal.

The will to power sets man up as a god.

The will to meaning sets man up as a being standing in relationship to God (the Universe, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or anything in between).

Paul Tillich rightly noted that the greatest anxieties of contemporary culture are precisely those of doubt and meaninglessness [3]. Indeed, a certain number, possibly the majority, of people suffering from depression today have their disorder rooted in, or affected by existential depression. Modern social-media influenced behaviours, such as the Fear-Of-Missing-Out (FOMO) Syndrome, are also rooted in the challenges related to identify meaning to one’s actions.

When education really does matter?

Education is, by definition, the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits. For the sake of the argument, in the next paragraphs, I will consider education only the set of experiences leading to the development of positive values and attitudes, relevant life-skills and culturally enriching knowledge. This is to say that even those who we consider poorly-educated and with an anti-social behaviour (ex: racists), still got their set of values (as negative as they might be), their knowledge (as little as it is) and their beliefs (as simplistic as they are) through a process of education. Every human being is educated, but not all at the same standards!

We should consider the importance of (good) education by looking at the impact which the lack of it would likely have. In other words, would a combination of genetics and dumb luck make up for poor education in a given set of circumstances?

Pleasure

Considering the natural human quest for pleasure, this is clearly non-debatable. Poorly educated, dumb or non-cultivated people can certainly achieve similar levels of pleasure as any other person in the world.

The levels and chemical structure of endorphins released by brains of people listening to reggaeton are exactly the same as those of people listening to Wagner. There is absolutely no need to be educated to achieve pleasure – if anything, it is, probably, easier!

I feel this is actually not true (see below) but scientific studies have yet to demonstrate real differences between physical and mental momentarily satisfaction originated in “cultivated” compared to “lower quality” activities.

Power

The will to power adds an extra layer of complexity. Education and culture might, indeed, help one to raise to a position of power in any given field. However, this is not a given – there are lots of well-educated people doing low-level jobs in the world. Being lucky in the genetic lottery can easily overcome the lack of education – look at any of the big economical empires’ heirs making the front-page cover of scandal magazines. In my country, Romania, most of the high-level politicians are far from being educated, but having the right connections easily compensated this.

If happiness was only about power and pleasure, than education would certainly help, but would not be indispensable.

Meaning

Anyone in the world have or will, at a certain point in their lives, ask themselves questions like: “What is the meaning of my life? Is it only to work 9 to 5, have a family, and then die? What about all the memories I gathered – will they just disappear once I stop breathing – what’s the point in creating them, then? Does God care about me? What really am I in the infinity of space an time?”.

Wherever leading people to positive action or surrender to depression, these questions are, nevertheless, cathartic, giving people the opportunity to address their most important aspiration: to find a meaning for their lives!

And here the educated people should be better equipped to find a suitable and coherent answer than less-educated ones. Their lives could become more fulfilling and their overall happiness state would be on a different level. It also equips them better to deal with the adversities and challenges in life. A sudden fall of luck for any dumb politician, and he’ll become a miserable no-one. A good education will allow people to easily bounce back, see challenges as opportunities and even enjoy the chance!

I do not master enough physiology to back this up scientifically but I guess that, whatever you do, the overall quality of happiness it produces is of a higher nature and the chemical balance in the brain more “refined”, if you have, through good education, found values and reasons for your life. It’s like paid sex versus love sex – though they are physiologically identical they create a substantially different quality of experience on a person (or so I’ve been told).

I like to believe that the experience of listening to Pink Floyd creates a fundamentally different, more complex, pleasure than listening to Justin Bieber. But there is no study to back this up, as far as I know.

What am I trying to sell?

In Scouting, we aim to educate young people to become responsible citizens, active members of their communities. I am convinced that we’ll never achieve any of this unless our young people see it as a way to achieve meaning in life.

Hence, Scouting education should put more emphasis on values appropriation and what is (for now) called spiritual development rather than knowledge transfer and skills development. Our prime aim is not to help people to find jobs or become explorers – though we hope that some of them do. This should be a by-product of education, in general, and Scouting, in special.  

Values

Our Scout Law describes a set of values we expect our members to live by. Alas, the list is not exhaustive [5], it has aged a little and it’s not even understood in the same way across the world. Some of critical values relevant for the 21st century are not listed or are sometimes only inferred from the more traditional ones mentioned by Baden-Powell. In the spirit of this post I could mention resilience, equality, open-mindedness, critical-thinking, reflection, autonomy, pro-activeness, inquisitiveness, etc. I find supporting young people to develop these more important than learning the Morse code or showing discipline.

Value-based education should become more central in the systems for defining programmes in Scouting.

Spiritual development

Oversimplifying for the sake of this post, there are two ways to find meaning in life: theism or existentialism.

Theists believe God created the universe and that God had a purpose in doing so. Humans find their meaning and purpose for life in God’s Creation plan. If there were no God to give life ultimate meaning, value and purpose, then life would be absurd.  

According to existentialism, humans are driven to meaning in their lives not by an outside authority, but internally, through our own choices, desires and pursuits. Humans are entirely free, and, therefore, entirely responsible for their own happiness or misery. It is up to each one of us to create the meaning which drives our life, whether it be through work, hobbies, charity, religion, relationships, offspring, family, or something else.

I would like the meaning of my life to be my decision, based on my personal set of values, “freely” chosen (I do not really believe in freedom, I’m rather a hard determinist, but this is another discussion). Not a big fan of answering questions in nature or morals with “because God said so!”.

I have also a special relationship with beauty and stories so I guess that, in conjunction with my love for hard-core science, I fit in professor Sean Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” current.

However, I respect any other way to achieve a similar result and consider the religious path as good as any, provided this is the result of a seriously critical personal reflection and not merely cultural inheritance or indoctrination.

The real conflict is not between religious believers and naturalists, it is between people who actively search for answers and those who are happy to be fed ready-made solutions. And these people are on both “sides”.

It’s like you’re reading this great gripping mystery novel called life and you’re happy for someone to read you the last pages immediately after you started!

If you do not think for yourself, there’s always someone ready to do it for you!

Whatever approach we favour, it’s our duty as Scout leaders to give young people opportunities to add elements for building their life purpose with each activity we participate in. What it’s usually called spiritual development should extend to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics. Our method and field of play are exceptionally well equipped to help us with this and we should not pass the opportunity!

So, why not extend the spiritual development to become metaphysical development? This is not mere semantics, it would entail a significant change in how we approach the educational objectives and activities to achieve them. It would not put God out of work, it will just frame her/him in a wider context.

So what could we focus on?

According to the Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM) of social psychology, people can derive a sense of meaning from four different sources:

    • self-esteem (developing a sense of self-worthiness)
    • closure (resolving doubts and ambiguities)
    • belonging (being part of something bigger and longer-lasting than ourselves)
  • symbolic immortality (leaving something of significance behind)

I would like to see relevant answers to questions in these four areas as the main building blocks of the metaphysical development in Scouting.

to be continued…

[1] Frankl, V. E. (1991). The Will to Meaning, Expanded Edition. New York, NY: Meridian.

[2] Jung, C. G. (1995). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London, UK: FontanaPress, p. 373.

[3] Tillich, P. (1952). The Courage To Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[4] Heine, S. J., Proulx, T. and Vohs, K. D. (2006). The Meaning Maintenance Model: On the Coherence of Social Motivations. In: Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(2), pp. 88-110.

[5] A list of over 400 values can be seen here: https://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2004/11/list-of-values/

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