From financial to spiritual consultancies

While attendance at formal services is at low, people are still looking for meaning and spirituality. Blurring the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of financial consulting, Casper ter Kuile, co-funder of  Sacred Design Lab, provides businesses a wide range of spiritual practices as a technology for delivering meaning.

︎︎︎Isabel Evangelisti / SOCIETY
Today we are virtually sitting down and listening to the words of Casper ter Kuile. Originally from England, he grew up with no religious background and, in his younger adult life, he was a climate activist. During the Copenhagen talks in 2009 he felt like the scale of the problem that activists were trying to solve was extremely outmatched with the resources that he had as a single individual. That’s when Casper started to wonder that maybe it’s not just about solving the problem in the “outer world”, but there has to be some connection with an “inner-outer life”. Soon after, he found himself unexpectedly in Harvard Divinity School, a place where he could ask questions about culture, ritual, community.
Sacred Lab team, by Sacred Lab

I: I’m very much intrigued by this  interconnection you established between the “inner-outer world”. Could you elaborate further on that?

C: When I was a climate activist I realized that yes, there is personal responsibility...but even if we all individually were responsible for our actions it still wouldn’t be enough to shift governmental action. And even if we moved policies, it would still not deal with the fundamental issue, which is the paradigm we live in which says that “nature is something separate from us humans”.
We see animals, plants, the sky as resources that are there to be used, rather than seeing the natural world as something we are part of and that is something sacred. 
If we did (and there are cultures that do, and did!), that would change the frame with which we make decisions.
When we loose that kind of wisdom and relationship with the natural world we get screwed, so that kind of connection to place and people ends up uncultivated. That is basically how I ended up thinking about this question of spirituality and rituals because these are the ways in which we reconnect in that deeper way, that inner and outer peace.

I: Nowadays, however, we can perceive a steep decline in traditional religious institutions. Especially when you look at younger people, they  identify less and less with them. According to you, why is that now and what has changed?

C: The concept that I call of “unbundling and re-mixing” explains this very well. If you look at the catholic church, it used to be an institution that would not only give you your spiritual life confession, but it was also was a strong community, a place for your education, healthcare, it kind of provided this 360 service. Whereas today, you might perhaps use the inside meditation app or headspace, social media, everything is connected, globalized. Information is being unbundled in all of these different ways, which on one hand is wonderful, because you are making your own personal mix, yet at the same time, it means that in our meaning-making lives isn’t shared. We don’t have these home bases, those places to return to with the whole community.

I: Could you give some examples of
re-mixed spiritual communities?

C: There’s so many! “Afro Flow Yoga” is one which
re-mixes yoga dance ancestral journey through movement and life music, or “Maker Spaces”, “The Sanctuaries”, “The witches of Baltimore”, even “Cross fit”..
Sacred Lab mission, by Sacred Lab

I: I heard of Cross fit too, and that people all over the world are engaging at the same time every day. You can clearly see the liturgical element...But tell me a bit more about how you started the Lab!

C: I founded Sacred Lab out of the research I was doing at Harvard Divinity school, really interested in the changing nature of spirituality in America, people are less and less religious, but people are not necessarily not interested anymore in experiences of transcendence, meaning, connection. It’s not in decline, it’s changing. Habits and routines help us fulfill a functional purpose...

“People are less and less religious, but people are not necessarily not interested anymore in experiences of transcendence, meaning, connection”

I: About rituals, I read about the book you recently wrote “The power of Ritual”. How would you define a ritual?

C: Rituals are a set of actions that also have a symbolic meaning, they reference meaning or they serve a logic purpose yet not only functionality. There’s a rich catalogue of spiritual technologies that can help us orient our lives towards the things that matter most, helping us become the kind of person we want to be in the world. I’m especially interested in practices that help us remember our inherent connection. However, these practices are not there to make a connection, but rather they are helping us to remember that the connection already exists.

During Covid-19, people’s routines got inevitably destabilized, communities were challenged and had to find new ways to connect virtually. It’s been a time of moving towards meaning and the right moment for ritual making. Casper illustrated me how Gen Z has tried to use spiritual practice since the beginning of quarantine and that connection doesn’t necessarily require to be experienced physically together. Doing the same action at the same time  like others across the world already makes people virtually connected to a greater whole. However, he stressed that any ritual should be historically and culturally contextual. The takeaway is that, if ritual is not changing, it’s very likely that it’s gonna loose its power. 

I: The pandemic has for sure launched an invitation to think about which new kind of structures for relationships we can create, which I really find intriguing to brainstorm about. If you had to name the main benefits that you can draw from spiritual practices, which would these be?

C: First of all, there’s personal transformation, how they change us physically and emotionally. Also social transformation, in a world which constantly changes, it might be a justice issue, inequality, space...Creativity, the act of creating instead of consuming. Then, purpose finding, they help you find life meaning, a sense. Or also accountability, as the power of rituals ensure commitment, attendance. There’s community, nurturing that inner-outer connection and, last but not least, “something more”. I like the sentence “God becomes and un-becomes”, which means that God is only our name for it. The closer you get to it, the less you understand about it. It invites us to ask questions, who we are, why we are here, what we are doing and where are we going.

I: And what would you say is the biggest stigma attached to religion nowadays?

C: One of the most destructive ideas about religion is that faith is about certainty, having the right answers, not even questioning something...When in my understanding faith is about a hopefulness in the face of uncertainty, and it’s about embracing question, doubt, learning, exploring and listening, but with a loving conviction of the heart of who we are.

“In my understanding faith is about a hopefulness in the face of uncertainty, and it’s about embracing question, doubt, learning, exploring and listening”

I: Back to Sacred Lab, which are some recent projects you have been working on? And what can businesses learn from spirituality?

C: We’re working, for instance, with a large tech firm to imagine what their future headquarter space might look like knowing that more and more young people are entering the workforce looking in their job for meaning, connection and purpose in a way that maybe traditionally you wouldn’t have expected that to happen. We ask ourselves which new physical spaces will be needed in the workplace. Will we need some sort of temples of inspiration in the head office? Do we need specific spaces for small groups to make meaning and share authentically? That’s one example.

We’re also working with the Wellbeing Trust Foundation, whose mission is to serve the mental, social and spiritual well-being of the country; to think about what spiritual well-being really is.  In this way we create an assessment that could be used to help people both notice for themselves, but also help a community notice.  We might be really efficient at reaching these particular economic outcomes, but everyone is burning out or we’re not treating each other in the way we would want to. We’re helping  to find a new system of measurement, or better, indication, to spiritual

And we worked with the Obama foundation.  That was to create a reflection process for young activists who are going through a learning process to learn about community organizing, but we know that without reflection and meaning-making, a lot of activists will struggle to maintain that commitment prominently in years to come.

For us, these are tools, spiritual technologies that can serve us in all sorts of parts of our life and we get to explore what that looks like with all sorts of different partners and very different settings, so it’s never boring! But we kind of call it, instead of a human-design approach, a soul-centered design approach.

“These are tools, spiritual technologies that can serve us in all sorts of parts of our life and we get to explore what that looks like with all sorts of different partners and very different settings”

I: That blows my mind, unfortunately I feel in many companies a “healthy”environment is still not a given. Many do not realize that prioritizing this inevitably will enrich their dynamics, their community and, at the end of the day, ensure good profit/results. However, another question arises. How can experience designers double check themselves, be responsible and avoid becoming leaders of destructive cults?

C: Absolutely, ritual is a tool which can be also be weaponized. One of the things you learn in Divinity School is that if you are creating experiences that go soul-depth for participants, it demands many things from you as a leader that you have to be prepared to manage.
Now, that includes the projections that a group of people you lead are gonna put on to you. Both in the sense that they might not like you and make you responsible for everything that is wrong. But, even more dangerously, they might think of you as some sort of guru with all the answers.
If you are not careful, that goes right to your head and you start to make excuses for a behavior that is incredibly damaging.  Just think of all the sexual abuse that has been happening in religious spaces. The issue of boundaries is really important, but also the issues of support and accountability. This means that if you are the leader, you should have colleagues or mentors or even people with authority over you that you can go to and make sense of what has happened. In this way, you can figure out how to change next time and make sure you do right by the people that you are leading.

I thank Casper for the insightful reflections about his mission and projects. I for sure understood how becoming ethical experience designers comes with a great deal of commitment and challenges. It is vital to understand what impact these spiritual practices can do to the people who experience them. Responsibility and integrity are the tools to take into account to avoid any sort of harm. In short, spirituality is ever changing and context-dependent. We can be inspired by past religious perspectives yet we can’t only rely on ancient wisdom. To design for inclusion while championing radicals, technologies and innovation, the invitation for the future is to co-create.


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