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Is spirituality the missing pillar of sustainability?
Early in my career, I came across the concept of the triple bottom line, a term coined by John Elkington in 1994 that expanded the conventional success metrics of business beyond the financial bottom line to also include environmental health and social wellbeing. The three P’s of People, Planet and Profit as they became known, are a beautifully simple concept to help businesses think more holistically about their impact.
The challenge is that we're now nearly thirty years in the future and despite the best efforts of many people, we haven't yet cracked the nut of sustainable business or sustainability more broadly. Yes, there are some truly inspiring pockets of progress, but I think most honest people will admit that we don't yet know how to create a truly sustainable economy in which all of humanity has the opportunity to live a fulfilling life on a healthy planet.
This has led me to wonder if we're missing something from our apparently holistic model of people, planet and profit. In particular, I've been wondering if we are too focused on systems and actions that we can do, rather than on ourselves as human beings and what we can be. I’ve been wondering if we need to do more inner work in order to truly succeed in our outer work.
Then I came across a quote from Satish Kumar, in which he said that “all good regenerative businesses are built on four pillars: ecological, social, spiritual and financial”.
Yes, you heard that right - he said spiritual.
How did he get away with that?
If any normal person dropped spirituality into a conversation about business, their credibility would rapidly dissolve around them. Yet when someone like Satish Kumar says that businesses need a spiritual pillar, it doesn’t sound that strange. That’s probably because Satish Kumar has spent a lifetime as a public figure talking about peace, environmentalism and spirituality. He has a certain personal brand that’s loved precisely because he has a way of sharing wisdom that we might otherwise not be open to.
The problem is that we only hear such things from a select group of people like Satish Kumar that our society has somehow approved to say things that the rest of us can’t. They are the exception to the rule. We don’t hear these things from Jeff Bezos or Alan Sugar, or the people we work with day to day. If ever we do then it feels weird and uncomfortable. I have to admit that it feels uncomfortable even writing this. Somehow we need to get comfortable talking about spirituality.
Now, if you're rolling your eyes and thinking that I’ve has lost the plot and gone all woowoo, you might be right. But don’t unsubscribe just yet. Stick with me, I promise I’m going somewhere.
First let’s define spirituality
There are many definitions of spirituality but at it’s core, spirituality is simply the process of exploring the mysteries of the self and the universe, and believing that there is more to life than material survival, even if we don’t know what. If the material world is what we can observe with our five physical senses, the spiritual world is everything else.
We all know deep down that there is some sort of non-material world. As Rene Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am“. Even if we try to tell ourselves that consciousness can be explained simply as neurons firing in the brain, the truth is that it is still an incredible mystery. A mystery that is just one small part of the bigger mystery of how a bunch of atoms floating in space managed to self-assemble themselves into rich, intelligent eco-systems full of sentient beings, just by chance. We all wonder about it, but we don’t like to talk about it because it sounds a bit religious and unscientific, but in truth it’s just mysterious.
The problem is that in rejecting the dogma, we too have created dogma. A dogma that shuts down our natural human inclination to explore the mysteries of life, of our own inner worlds and of our deep connection to nature and each other.
Despite this, a YouGov survey found that 30% of people in Britain admit to having spiritual beliefs. This was in a survey that framed spirituality as believing in things like karma, chakras, star signs and healing crystals. In other words, a very specific stereotype of spirituality that many people don’t relate to.
I think if we stripped away the social stigma and stereotypes, we would find that most people have some personal beliefs about life, death and the universe that could be considered spiritual. In fact, I would bet that the number of people who never wonder about any of these things would be close to zero.
Spirituality then, is really the exploration of the other half of life that our society isn’t comfortable exploring. And that’s where it gets interesting.
As above, so below
One of the core principles of Hermetic philosophy is the principle of Mentalism, which states that all things are created from and expand from the mind.
There are different ways that you can interpret this, but in its simplest form it means that everything that we do in life begins with a thought or a feeling. The thought or feeling always precedes the action. Therefore the inner world, the spiritual world, drives the physical world. It is a mirror.
Everything that humans have ever done throughout our entire history has begun as thoughts and feelings, which then manifested as actions in the physical world. Our society is therefore shaped by the interaction between our inner worlds and the laws of nature. We cannot change the laws of nature and so if we want to change the world, we must focus our attention inwards.
Albert Einstein famously said that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” and so if we want to solve problems like poverty, ill health, climate change and the loss of biodiversity, we must elevate ourselves to a higher level of consciousness.
While our modern world cringes at any mention of spirituality, it is not the enemy of science. It speaks volumes that many of the greatest minds of history, including Einstein, Tesla, Da Vinci, Plato and Pythagorus were as interested in the spiritual world as they were in the material sciences. They knew that the world below was fundamental to the world above. While our modern society is built on much of their scientific knowledge, we have chosen to ignore much of their deeper wisdom.
We need a solid foundation
The Swiss UFO contactee Billy Meier once said that the problem with humanity is that our technology has advanced much faster than our spirituality. Whether or not you believe that he was actually contacted by aliens, he makes a good point.
Satish Kumar is listing spirituality as a fourth pillar of sustainable business because he understands that unless we evolve spiritually, it won’t matter how many technical solutions we develop. In this sense, spirituality is not even a fourth pillar of sustainability, but is instead the foundation upon which the pillars of people, planet and profit must be constructed. To succeed on the triple bottom line, we must build a strong spiritual foundation. To do that, we must look inwards.
The problem is that inner work is intangible. In a culture of materialism, especially at a time when it feels like we need to take urgent action, it’s hard to persuade ourselves to dedicate significant time and effort to inner exploration when we could be running around doing “real” things like developing new technologies, switching to a renewable energy provider, certifying as a B Corp or protesting outside the Houses of Parliament. With limited hours in the day and life being short, it can feel like time spent on inner work is time not spent doing something useful.
But we must shift our perspective. Time spent on inner work is an investment that will naturally deliver benefits in the outer world. It will lead us to act with greater clarity, generosity, love, empathy and peace. It will lead us to act more in harmony with ourselves and with nature, and to experience more creative inspiration. It will bring us greater contentment, quietening our physical cravings and our constant desire to consume. Pause for a moment and imagine just a small amount of these benefits multiplied by many people in our society. Inner work might seem intangible, but it is time well spent.
Without a solid spiritual foundation, humanity may well continue on its path toward self-destruction, whether it be through environmental collapse, nuclear war or Artificial Intelligence gone haywire. On the other hand, if we evolve our culture to value inner work as much as we value outer work, then our individual and collective spiritual wisdom might just catch up with our rapidly advancing technology.
If we can achieve that, we might succeed in implementing solutions that we currently can’t even imagine and the future of humanity could be very bright indeed.
Thanks for sticking with me this week while I explore a topic that’s even further on the edge than usual. If you found it interesting then you might also like to read Martin Palethorpe’s earlier guest post, “Is conscious leadership the only solution?“ and my post on psychedelics.
One last thing before you go. I’ve noticed that when I write about topics like this they get high numbers of views and private comments sent directly to me, but very few public shares. So my favour to ask is, if you’re feeling brave, share this post with your own thoughts. I’d really appreciate it.
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