Near the holiest site of one of the world’s oldest religions, a small group of scientists, scholars, writers and religious leaders gathered to discuss the psychology of religion and spirituality.
The location was Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), a geological wonder in the middle of Australia. This place is featured in the creation myth of the Anangu people, an Aboriginal tribe that forms one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures. The event’s host was the Imagination Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to making progress on the measurement, growth, and improvement of imagination across all sectors of society.
The group, headed by psychologists Martin Seligman and Scott Barry Kaufman, supports psychology and neuroscience research on creativity and imagination. Besides funding experimental research, the Imagination Institute also convenes groups of highly imaginative people across various domains. It has held meetings of physicists, musicians, mathematicians, educators, and many more (the research group was recently featured in a National Geographic article “What Makes a Genius?”). The goal of these meetings, through a series of questions and open-ended conversations, is to identify testable hypotheses about creativity and imagination.
I, a junior research fellow and PhD student in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was there to take notes and to identify questions that could be experimentally tested. I was invited, in part, because of an article that I had published, “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience.” In this integrative review, I and several subject matter experts (psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Ralph Hood, David Vago and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg) address self-transcendent experiences—those profound moments during which we feel connected to something greater than ourselves.
The preponderance of data from experimental research demonstrates that these experiences are rather common and are often quite positive for those who have them. Interestingly, people of any belief system—religious, spiritual but not religious, agnostic or atheist—can have these experiences and benefit from them. In the article, we conclude that Sigmund Freud was wrong to suppose that these experiences are inherently pathological, and that William James was right in his claim that these experiences are often (but not always) associated with well-being, and can provide us moments of, as James says, “our greatest peace.”
I went into the event wondering what I could learn about these experiences from hearing from religious leaders, thinkers and spiritual adepts.
The group at Uluru consisted of individuals known for their imagination in the domain of spirituality. They are the kind of people whom psychologist and philosopher William James referred to as “religious geniuses” in his The Varieties of Religious Experience on account of their capacity to experience, interpret and compellingly communicate religious and spiritual phenomena. The group included: Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary; Krista Tippett, journalist and host of the podcast “On Being”; Betty Sue Flowers, author and editor of Joseph Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers; Bill Bradley, former senator of New Jersey and NBA player; Roy Baumeister, social psychologist; Darren Levine, rabbi; Chikako Matsumoto, Buddhist teacher; Naomi Shihab Nye, Iranian-American poet, and several others.
The content of the conversations, though often fascinating and at times personally revealing, was remarkable less for what was said than for what went unsaid. That is, an insight arrived at through the event can inform not only the psychology of spirituality, but may be among the most important lessons of our age—or at least something worth keeping in mind for the coming year.
I’m talking about listening.
The act of listening to one another became a theme that united the group. This was not simply a “waiting for your turn to speak” kind of listening, but deep listening. That is to say, it was not what was spoken so much as how it was heard that mattered most in this gathering.
In a group with substantial religious diversity, differences of opinion are only natural. Indeed, these differences were intentionally cultivated by the Imagination Institute to form a group with a diversity of views. The familiar debates, religious and political, were predictably generated and regenerated over the course of the group’s conversations. To illustrate with just one difference of opinion, the scientists were unwilling to give an inch in terms of the value of science as the supreme means for understanding the world, and the religious individuals insisted on their conviction regarding the comfort and meaning that faith can provide. Despite these and many other differences, the group demonstrated a brilliant facility to hear and to hold this plurality of perspectives.
There are, as it turns out, many sources of meaning to which one can choose to listen. The first and most obvious type is the listening we do to other people from different backgrounds. Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, described some of the challenges and opportunities involved in running a multi-faith institution. She explained one practice adopted by the institution of opening public ceremonies with an invocation from a representative of the Native American tribe on whose land Union now rests. Through these and other rituals, her institution works to welcome, rather than suppress, the voices of others.
Tippett reminded the group again and again of the virtue of deep listening. On her “On Being” podcast, her questions provide a vehicle through which individuals reveal themselves to millions of listeners. Another initiative that she has launched, the Civil Conversations Project, includes listening as one of the core components of its mission. This ambitious project aims to foster conversations across difficult divisions in politics and religion. The first part of their mission statement reads:
The Civil Conversations Project seeks to renew common life in a fractured and tender world. We are a conversation-based, virtues-based resource towards hospitable, trustworthy relationship with and across difference.
In an era of unprecedented political division, healing may, in part, depend on our capacity to listen to one another. Bradley, the former Senator and NBA player, described his firsthand experience with getting along with politicians from across the aisle. There was a time when politicians were more willing to sit and break bread with individuals from other political parties in the U.S. Listening, he reminded the group, need not necessarily mean agreement.
Insights around listening extended beyond the group’s conversations. As the discussion became more personal through the bravery of personal disclosures, it emerged that there is an art to listening to the deep parts of one’s self. Many members of the group shared pivotal dreams, visions and self-transcendent experiences of the kind that I study that helped to shape the course of their lives.
Such messages from the depths of one’s own mind can either be acknowledged or ignored. Poet Nye recounted how her world-renowned poem “Kindness” came to her as a kind of voice that she heard from deep within herself. On her honeymoon, her and her husband’s luggage was stolen. As her husband traveled to the next town to get new travel documents, she sat in the town’s square watching people as they passed. Suddenly, the poem came to her as if “floating across the square” for her to transcribe. The first lines of the poem read:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
One can also listen to the world, in a sense. Beyond the symbolic meaning that Uluru holds to the Anangu people, the place is visually awe-inspiring—actually, utterly breathtaking. Deep in the Australian outback, the closest sizable town is farther away than the International Space Station when it passes overhead. Tours in this place are billed with phrases like “Touch the Silence” and “The Sounds of Silence.”
Out in the desert, with no lights for miles other than the thick spread of stars across the night sky, the idea of “listening to the world” feels like it means something both real and deeply profound. One can seem to become aware of the background of the planet on which we live—the setting within which all of our human dramas play out. If one is lucky, or maybe predisposed, one might even hear what author Flowers referred to semi-mystically during the proceedings as, “the background hum of love.”
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, deep listening requires the space of silence. We cannot truly hear if we cannot quiet both our voices and our minds. Susan Cain makes a similar point about the power of listening in her book Quiet. Importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything necessarily spiritual about deep listening—that is, there are no specific beliefs required—but this kind of listening could well be considered a spiritual practice. As Robert Wright describes in his book Why Buddhism Is True, practices like mindfulness meditation can enhance our capacity to listen by giving us peace of mind for long enough to hear, as it were, a piece of another person’s mind.
Notions like “listening to the world” and “the background hum of love” are resonant with the ways people sometimes describe the self-transcendent experiences that I study, though these phrases were put far more poetically than the psychometric survey instruments that I use in my research could ever hope to capture. For me, an experimental psychologist, hearing phrases like these underscored the importance of supplementing quantitative studies with qualitative research. There, in the desert surrounding Uluru, I made a resolution to spend more time this coming year outside of the lab, listening to the people who have had the kinds of self-transcendent experiences that I study.
So what insights did the psychologists of the Imagination Institute like Kaufman and Seligman take from the Uluru meeting? Unlike the other domains studied by the group, spirituality may be unique in that its cultivation requires entering into silence in order to listen more deeply to other people, to our own inner depths, to the world, and, perhaps for some experimental psychologists, to the subjects of our research.