Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps
Drawing on new science and ancient wisdom, a vivid account of the awareness needed for flourishing today.
Drawing on new science and ancient wisdom, a vivid account of the awareness needed for flourishing today.
We live in an age of emergency, exacerbated by a collapse of meaning. Writer and psychotherapist Mark Vernon examines the type of intelligence that, whilst often dismissed and overlooked, is crucial to understand and cultivate if we are to survive and thrive in our times.
Spiritual intelligence is the foundation of who we are and our particular type of consciousness. It is the perception identified across wisdom and religious traditions, and known by many names, which can be summarised as the awareness of awareness, and so of being itself. It is the foundation of peace, even in the face of death, as well as purpose and solidarity. The challenge today is to recover and live according to that knowledge.
Examining themes from the nature of consciousness to the experience of time, the emergence of our species and the teaching of spiritual adepts, the book is an antidote to rampant AI and a complement to emotional intelligence. It is written without presuming religious commitments in readers and draws on a mix of sources and experience gained from the author's own practices. It advocates pilgrimage and improvisation, virtues over morality, and big histories that do not turn the story of our species into a bleak struggle for survival.
The seven steps will help readers identify spiritual intelligence within themselves, unpack why it matters, and suggest how a wider trust in it may be revived.
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What is spiritual intelligence? That’s the question I asked myself when the publishers recently suggested I might like to write about Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps by Mark Vernon (Iff Books) because it was ‘on its way to being one of our best-selling non-fiction titles’ since publication in December 2022. Well, my interest was piqued. Vernon, a psychotherapist and a former Anglican priest, explains that spiritual intelligence is a type of perception, a felt sense that our experience is connected to a wider vitality, ‘that what we grasp is only a fraction of what might be understood’. Indeed, we have a ‘spiritual commons’ which comes with the recognition that our lives continually draw on a bigger presence, an immanence. Known by many names — soul, spirit, source, Brahman, Tao, God — spiritual intelligence is identified across age-old wisdom and religious traditions and, says Vernon, it can be summarised as ‘the awareness of awareness’, and thus of Being itself. It’s the foundation of human consciousness and who we are, of meaning, purpose and peace, yet knowledge of it has been largely lost in today’s secular, materialistic and mechanistic culture; as I wrote here, we are losing sight of the soul. The eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung said that people can get lost in mere consciousness and rationality, causing something like a dissociation between consciousness and the unconscious, an unnatural, even pathological condition, ‘a loss of soul such as has threatened man from the beginning of time’ (Answer to Job, 1954). Although Mark Vernon’s title Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps could give potential readers a false impression by implying that it’s a simplistic ‘easy steps’ self-help manual, it’s actually a worthy treatise (in seven chapters after an introduction) on ‘reflective reorientation’ with the laudable aim of returning the mind to spiritual intelligence. Rising to the challenge of regaining it could be crucial to our survival as a species, Vernon believes. His timely themes embrace human origins and the nature of consciousness, individuality and freedom, matters of the soul, the meaning of death, ethics, the experience of time, the teachings of spiritual masters, and the metaphysical implications of the findings of quantum science. Firstly, let me say that I’m entirely at one with Vernon in his view that humans have participated in a universal consciousness since the earliest times, although this has been forgotten in the present day. Here’s one of the most important statements (for me) in his book: ‘Human beings, along with all of nature, abide in this one, unified consciousness and, I would add — in a Platonic colouring to absolute idealism — participate in its singular life as myriad varieties and variations of its emanating and returning vitality. Spiritual intelligence is the capacity to detect this glorious universal in the many delightful and co-creating particulars.’ (Vernon’s italics). He concludes that our distant ancestors were adept at consciously detecting a spiritual commons, and evolved further by growing into an awareness of being that was shared by everything they encountered. Thus home sapiens could also be called homo spiritualis because ‘an active participation in this implicit dimension of reality was essential to them and us’. Spiritual intelligence was a core part of the early hominin’s way of life. Historically, sacred sites and structures where people gathered to feast and perform rites had become holy because, through an acknowledgement of spiritual intelligence, they were places where the expansiveness of the cosmos could be invoked and reliably known. People could ‘dig down’ in the quest for meaning, literally and metaphorically. Vernon’s fear is that, today, spiritual intelligence has become so overlooked and sidelined that ‘people are inclined to be sniffy about it and deny that it exists altogether’. Heart of the crisis But modern civilisation is in trouble, he says, and the loss of spiritual intelligence is at the heart of the crisis; we need richer ways of relating to human and non-human others, if we’re not to permanently injure them and ourselves: ‘Material obsessions and consumer desires are in the driving seat.’ Ignorance about what spiritual intelligence sees as the reality of the spiritual commons might be said to be the defining feature of our times. The critical question, which Vernon seeks to answer in his seven chapters, is how to overcome this ignorance. Economic policies and technology obscure the spiritual commons and one must ask how, culturally and societally, people can reconnect with it, how they can align with ‘the deeper pulses of reality’. In particular, Vernon is concerned, rightly, about the advent of manipulative artificial intelligence (AI) where the danger is that we’ll forget how to live without its planning and problem-solving abilities. He advocates virtues over morality as ‘diverse human responses to the good’ — identifying six: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Notwithstanding the dangers of virtue signalling, conventional morality is a ‘dead end’, a way of calculating consequences which doesn’t necessarily shape behaviour. I think Vernon is on to something here and one might add honesty and responsibility to his list of virtues, as well as prudence which completes the four cardinal virtues (along with justice, temperance and fortitude, or courage) recognised in the writings of classical antiquity and, of course, in the Christian tradition. However, I was surprised to find Vernon, in an ascription of virtues, mentioning Greta Thunberg in the same breath as Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. If the former, a highly controversial figure, really is capable of catalysing virtues in others, as Vernon suggests, then for many it will happen in a sense opposite to the one he imagines. https://geoffjward.medium.com/the-challenge-of-regaining-our-spiritual-intelligence-117fab2c4b82?sk=41b4637b1a949b9955ae4f0c6b6b840d ~ Geoff Ward, Medium.com
This wise and perceptive book argues that spiritual intelligence is the foundation of who we are – awareness of awareness, being itself. The malaise of our times is due to a side-lining of this quality, leading to widespread loss of meaning and demoralisation. Mark quotes Karl Jaspers in this respect: “it is impossible for man to lose transcendence, without ceasing to be man”- a remark with which Jung would have agreed. Later, he observes that ‘doing away with the inner life of the cosmos is a step towards doing away with the inner life of people’ though I think there are signs of recovery, at least in some quarters. The book begins with a discussion of spiritual intelligence as a type of perception that is basic to being human and it enables us to apprehend directly the underlying reality of which we are all an expression. The book proposes seven steps, beginning with retelling our story leading to the emergence of a mental space of spiritual intelligence (homo spiritualis), discovering freedom, seeing reality as simple, settling the soul, learning to die, resonating with reality, and finally what he calls befriending irruptions. The engaging narrative draws on many sources of insight as well as Mark’s own experience. The final steps are important in presenting a refined ethic and attitude based on virtue and our capacity to experience time as a more expansive Kairos rather than a stressful linear Chronos. The chapter on the meaning of death treats it as an opportunity to reflect on life, drawing on the death of Socrates and the work of Tolstoy. I agree with Mark that regaining serious contact with the spiritual dimensions of reality is essential, and that it gives us a different set of priorities, especially in relation to the advent of AI. He sums up his inspiring message at the end of the journey: ‘we are homo spiritualis. Inner freedom is ours. Rich simplicity can be seen. The soul can settle. Death will prove a portal. The good remains committed. Kairos is waiting to break through in the slightest rustle and fall of leaves. This is our story, and it informs what to do and how to be.’ ~ Paradigm Explorer, Scientific and Medical Network
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. I thoroughly enjoyed this wise and thought provoking book. It’s well researched and offers perspectives from many different cultures and religions. Open the book - open your mind - and you will be pleasantly surprised with what you find. ~ Sarah Kingsnorth (Reviewer), NetGalley
WE ARE not human beings who have spiritual experiences, but spiritual beings who have human experiences. So wrote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In this important and challenging cri de coeur, the psychotherapist and erstwhile Anglican priest Mark Vernon confirms that “spiritual intelligence is basic to being human.” But he is fearful that “it has become so overlooked and sidelined in the modern world that people are inclined to . . . deny that it exists altogether.” So, we must wake up to it before it is too late: our future as a species may depend on it. Homo spiritualis is at risk of suppression in an age when it is reductionist scientism and materialism that are dictating how our humanity, and the environment that we inhabit physically, emotionally, and intellectually, are being understood, articulated, and threatened. But what is spiritual intelligence? Well, anyone who has thoughts, feelings, and experiences can do so only because of the side of life which spiritual intelligence sees is operative and active. It is a type of perception “which delivers a felt sense that our experience of things is connected to a wider vitality . . . that there is more underpinning existence, and this appears upon closer inspection to be unvaryingly, universally, energetically present”. Crucially, it is not the opposite of the material, but, rather, is the reason that the material world can be so radiant. It is fundamental to grasping the nature of being, and “can be said to be prior to religion”. In an approach reminiscent of the most influential wisdom traditions, Vernon takes us through a series of seven steps designed to deepen understanding of spiritual intelligence and its place in our lives. It is an invitation “to step into another relationship with the world that is richer and an enlargement”. From the beginning, Homo sapiens has always been Homo spiritualis, and from this initial state individuality emerged. But subjectivity has been subordinated to so-called “objective truth” in modern times — a step that spiritual intelligence radically challenges. Step four relates spiritual intelligence to the concept of soul, and step five offers a profoundly moving reflection on how spiritual intelligence affects our approach to death and dying. The final two steps argue for virtue as the most appropriate moral articulation of spiritual intelligence, and how it can creatively inform our relationship to time and “the capacity to embrace crises and irruptions”. While he believes that “ours is a moment for a conversion of sorts,” as an agnostic, he asserts that this should not be “to any one theological system or particular revelation”. That said, religious figures such as Jesus, the Buddha, and Confucius feature regularly, even if he remains sceptical about the effectiveness of today’s Church when it comes to fostering spiritual intelligence. This remarkable journey engages easily with Eastern mysticism, Western film and fiction, personal biography, and professional psychotherapy, citing luminaries from Socrates to William Blake — and even an illuminating shopping expedition for tomato soup. If our times are spiritually impoverished, then Vernon offers a pathway towards the rediscovery, appreciation, and activation of spiritual intelligence as essential to our basic humanity, and crucial to our future flourishing. ~ John Saxbee, Church Times
In Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps, Mark Vernon draws on the understanding of numerous individuals and cultures, weaving them into a text that leads the reader on a journey into the very heart of their self and, at the same time, to the reality that lies behind and is expressed as the world. Like the journey which his mentor, Dante, undertakes, each chapter guides us more and more deeply into the perennial understanding that lies at the foundation of our civilisation. ~ Rupert Spira, Spiritual teacher, writer and studio potter
Compellingly readable, urgently important, kind, wise and scholarly. This is a manual for living and dying that begins with the usually overlooked questions: ‘What are we?’ and ‘Where did we come from?’ Unless we have informed answers we can’t begin to say how we should behave, or what makes us thrive, or speculate on our prognosis as a species, let alone about the therapy that might avert catastrophe. Vernon’s gentle, humble and powerful book needs to be widely read before it’s too late for us all. ~ Charles Foster, Author of Being A Human and Being A Beast
Spiritual intelligence goes well beyond what we understand as emotional intelligence. It connects us with the centre of our being and our shared spiritual commons. To leave behind the false idols of our materialist imagination, we must learn to reappreciate wonder, death, kairological time, and the glorious universal. In seven elating steps, Mark Vernon outlines how we can dance with the fact that spiritual hunger has always been part of the human condition, and become Homo spiritualis once again. Why should we? Quite simply to avoid going extinct as a species. ~ Anna Katharina Schaffner, Author of The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths
As entertaining and passionate as it is profound, this book is a treasure trove of spiritual insight and guidance. Expertly interweaving the wisdom of mysticism, philosophy and psychology, Mark Vernon shows that spiritual awakening is the most urgent need of our time. ~ Steve Taylor, Author of The Leap and Extraordinary Awakenings
With intellectual flair, passionate commitment and enormous scope of vision, Mark Vernon has put his finger on the spiritual impoverishment of our times, and offered a pathway to those who are seeking guidance for living soulfully in our materialist world. If we don’t take this seriously and learn from both our own inner wisdom and the great philosophical and religious traditions available to us, the ‘decline and fall’ of the twenty-first century may well be nigh. Vernon shows us how we can reflect afresh and learn what it means to live and die well - this book is a bold and challenging urge to wake up before it is too late. ~ Angela Voss, Centre for Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred
There is a widespread hunger for spiritual intelligence. In this characteristically lucid book Mark Vernon explains that it is not a proficiency achieved by an elite, but a way of perceiving things that is open to everyone. He takes his readers on a transformative journey that helps them to understand better the nature of spiritual intelligence, how it has developed, how it can be cultivated, and why it matters. ~ Fraser Watts, University of Lincoln
The world is desperately in need the kind of spiritual intelligence which Vernon presents, based on humility, insight, compassion and, above all, joy. His attempt to talk about it in a way which is not circumscribed by specific religious belief, but rather draws upon the wisdom of all the great spiritual traditions as well as the contemporary psychology and science, is both original and immensely helpful for those who wish to cultivate these qualities in themselves. ~ Jane Clark, Editor of Beshara Magazine