Spirit in Action Part 2

Spirit in Action Part 2



What might a contemporary wisdom embrace? Can we seek to better express a shared narrative that seeks truth and goodness? How do we make this wisdom fit for purpose in 2020?

Part 1 explored spirit from two perspectives. First, the outer journey of connecting to a greater reality (Spirit). Second, the inner journey of integrating our physical, emotional and mental resources to nurture our essence (spirit). Both are basic freedoms for which we are each responsible.

We recognise and acknowledge different spiritual narratives – or religions. Many (see Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy) believe that they share a core wisdom. The core wisdom seeks truth and goodness. Humans, as story-tellers, are free to express the stories that help us make sense of, and apply, wisdom.

Purpose and Direction

More people die from suicide (800,000 per year) than are killed by human violence (21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Noah Y. Harari, 2018). While fulfilment of basic needs has improved, human wellbeing is in decline. Suffering – particularly in terms of anxiety and depression – is overwhelming. Despair is widespread.

The core purpose of spiritual wisdom is to reduce suffering. As we reduce suffering, we experience more joy. This is the direction of spirit in action. It is simple and clear.

  1. Understand and reduce suffering.
  2. Seek to build wellbeing and joy.

The fuel for this journey is hope. Modern wisdom must deliver a message of hope to people. That hope must be built on a good narrative and practical steps one can take to reduce suffering and increase joy. Each person must learn from an early age how to take responsibility for their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. The must believe in growth for it is here that hope lies.

Subjectivity and Inclusiveness

Usage of “I” has trumped “we” in recent decades. Does spiritual wisdom serve the individual or all life? We express a wide range of subjectivity. Some risk health and life to boost muscle mass for a fleeting sense of pride. Others seek a drug or alcohol fix to serve an impulse of joy. Many fiercely serve and defend their tribe, race or nation as we see in modern populism. We may even seek to serve all sentient beings and the resilience of the planet.

This is a wicked challenge. It may be the most crucial responsibility of wisdom. While humans are easily seduced into selfish impulse, we are equipped with empathy and altruism. We spontaneously seek to reduce suffering. We can care so much for a child, money or a cause that we can neglect ourselves and others who need us. Unrestrained sympathy can cause more suffering.

Religious conquests with noble objectives to serve ‘god’ and secure a place in heaven, destroyed communities and their cultural achievements. Today we serve money with a devotion that has squandered the beauty of our planet and put all forms of life at extreme risk. Many put their own life and wellbeing at risk on a daily basis to earn an extra dollar.

At the end of the day, the dilemma is what to love? Myself now, my place in heaven, my children, my tribe, money, humanity, the rhinos or pangolins, all life, natural beauty, truth…? One can understand the frustration of rural leaders when billionaire naturalists want to protect animals by taking land, food and hunting rights from their people. Conservation is a war zone driven by love. What irony.

Personal Enlightenment

When resilience fails our behaviour becomes increasingly deluded, short sighted and destructive. We suffer, those around us suffer and hope for a better world is extinguished. The foundation of spiritual wisdom is to support and nurture this inner journey.

The higher we rise the more important it becomes to reinforce this inner discipline. When leaders lie, steal, self-aggrandise and abuse, the community and natural environs suffer. We see this in corrupt nations, churches, NGOs and businesses.

Maybe spiritual wisdom is to serve personal enlightenment only. Ultimately, working on both the inner journey of integrating self and connecting to a higher reality is the only show in town. This is the choice of the contemplative in a cave or monastery. Everything else is secular – cultural, political or scientific.

The commandments might be:

  1. Respect, discipline and love yourself
  2. Respect, acknowledge and be kind to others
  3. Take care of your body
  4. Regulate your emotions
  5. Use your mind to see the truth
  6. Act with wisdom and compassion

The Social Contract

We are social creatures. Our individual wellbeing is intimately connected to our community resilience. When we jointly debate and resolve how best to move away from suffering and towards joy, we become an enlightened and just society. The community is a powerful catalyst and support of the personal, inner journey.

A spiritual wisdom can be the mission and values that bond individual and community into a just, compassionate and creative force. When leaders and community hold each other to account, good will prevail. The different perspectives of a community increase the probability of truth and goodness.

When spiritual wisdom is absent, we have corrupt communities (or failed states). Self-interest, greed, corruption and mass suffering follows. Evil prevails. It is extremely difficult for personal enlightenment to proceed.

The extensive suffering and destruction to people, economies, environment and all fellow species is a catastrophic tragedy that takes generations to repair. Our ‘western’ attempts to intervene have failed miserably. This becomes a challenge to the next level.

Planetary Wisdom

We live in the age of the Anthropocene when human activity is the major shaping force on the planet. What we do over the next decades will shape the future of life. For 30 years we have known clearly the threat to human life and ecosystems. Yet, we continue to play a game of blind Russian roulette with nuclear arms, carbon emissions, population growth, and waste.

Neither the individual nor the community – not even a group of nation states – can solve this particular problem. Governance has evolved from tribe, to region, to nation and now wrestles with integrated regions such as the European Community. The pressing challenge is wise and just governance for all humans and the ecosystems we rely upon.

Our actions or non-actions have profound implications. How much plastic waste is enough? Do we leave failed states to the pillage of their leaders or do we intervene? Do we close coal plants and face economic decline when a coastal population is threatened? Do we leave Africa to double its population knowing full well that many species, habitats and entire ecosystems collapse? At what point do we obliterate a rogue state threatening nuclear attacks?

It is possible to construct a spiritual wisdom that might guide the decisions of global bodies such as the UN or WHO? We are facing questions of what is sacred and what is not. Religions have long restrained our impulses and excesses. It feels like a time when a new wisdom might be needed to restrain our consumptive hedonism so that there is something beyond suffering and despair left for our children’s children.

The call for a spiritual wisdom for humanity is loud. It may go by many names. The principles or commandments might be:

  1. Seek and communicate the truth
  2. Live with restraint and compassion
  3. Respect and steward our planetary ecosystems
  4. Act with courage and creativity
  5. Keep a sense of humour and radiate joy

We will need enlightened individuals and resilient communities to help us debate, construct, guide and maintain it. The alternative is dark.

Part 3 addresses the personal practice of spirit in action.



Spirit in Action: Part 1

Spirit in Action: Part 1

“You have covered physical, emotional and cognitive but surely spiritual is the key factor in many people’s resilience?” the question came from a black South African business woman last week. Even across our team she will get a range of answers. Spirit in Action can be the end goal, quietly ignored or actively rejected.

The topic is contentious and potentially explosive. People can react with anger or contempt. The increasing prevalence of substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide suggest a crisis of meaning. Without constraining the liberty of religious choice, perhaps the spiritual path could do with some cautious and curious dialogue.

Our Resilience Diagnostic and Development model puts “spirit in action” right at the top of our spiral. In a dynamic world of multiple spiritual pathways and secular alternatives, we owe our participant a considered response. We welcome your participation in the dialogue.

I address her question in three parts:

  1. What we mean by Spirit in Action
  2. What a modern belief system might embrace?
  3. What practices underpin progress on a spiritual path?

Let us be respectful and inclusive of the many positive contributions that faith brings to our lives.

Spirit in Action: Part 1

Humans seek meaning. We’ve generated a diverse array of stories to make sense of existence. Some are more helpful than others. Hunter-gatherer communities came up with naturalistic magic. Agricultural – largely patriarchal – communities gave rise to the major spiritual traditions about 2,500 years ago. Some hold to traditional beliefs, while others embrace aspects of modern life such as electronic donations, apps and science.

Today, new spiritual promises compete with the older traditions. Science, sport, designer drugs, music, technology, biological diversity, and money compete successfully for our attention. In the past, you were a loyal convert or dead. Now, we are free to believe and do whatever we like. The thought: ‘god watches over me and might send me to hell’ is less scary.

Without the threat of hell or social sanction, a spiritual path is voluntary. It can be a lonely struggle of self-deprivation, deliberate practice, tenacity and patience. Few take it seriously. On the other hand, the decline in spiritual belief and practice correlates with increasing substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicide.

As we pursue our own selfish and impulsive desires, we create tremendous suffering, threaten much of the life on earth and even our own existence.

Given the pickle humanity has created, perhaps we actually need a spiritual quest more than ever. But it must be fit for purpose in 2020 – not 500 BC. To work, it requires the principals of evidence-based (true), integral (respecting body, heart, mind and the huge diversity of life) and practical (actionable in effective ways right now).

What is “Spirit in Action”

One can be a force for good without being spiritual. Medicine strives to reduce suffering and disease, NGO’s tackle worthy tasks, and individuals change lives. Secular humanism – a non-religious, evidence-based and coordinated endeavour to improve the lives of humans does not prescribe a belief.

Curing disease, educating women, providing clean water, and delivering justice changes beliefs and delivers extraordinary outcomes. The dedication, self-sacrifice and noble aspirations are actually quite ‘spiritual’. ‘God’ becomes ‘Good’.

Beyond secular humanism, mapping a spiritual path to enlightenment is no easy task. The delicate and all-important question is: “Do I have to believe in God?”

Our hypothesis: spiritual is an experience of union with a greater reality than our small, temporary individual existence.

Your greater reality may be nature, truth, evolution, love, the universe, or simply GOD. This reality – let’s call it Spirit (capital ‘S’) – is vast, largely unknown but integral to the existence of your small self (little ‘s’). When your little self feels fully at peace with and connected to Spirit, we feel the emotions of joy, bliss, love and awe.

As we grow, learn and develop wisdom, our conception of Spirit matures. White, bearded, old man on cloud becomes awe in the presence of nature, and then settles into an abiding peace, love and joy. Eventually, we experience total unity with all in the unfolding moment.

It is humble and wise to honour a higher force beyond ourselves. To make sense of Spirit is a basic freedom that liberates the small self from suffering. The more integrated and connected to Spirit we are the more peace, love and joy we will experience and radiate. While this quest is challenging, without it we face an existential crisis. This quest for meaning and connection is Spirit in Action.

As a scientific mind, an alternative perspective is attractive. Let’s say I recognise the reality of my body, my emotions and my thought. I know they can be quantified. It is clear to me that certain practices and skills lead to a healthier body, positive emotions and clarity of thought. This is good for me and others.

It is possible that my spirit (small ‘s’) is in action, when I experience peace (calm physiology), vitality (healthy body), love (positive emotions), and focus (clarity of thought)? In other words, when my physical, emotional and cognitive resources are at their best, I experience myself at a higher altitude. I am integrated and have become more whole.

This experience of integral being is not just body, emotion and mind. It is something more. Could we call it spirit? I think so. When we are in the integrated state that many call flow, we serve ourselves and others much more skilfully.

In fact, both perspectives are necessary.

Having faith in Spirit, Nature or God, is clearly a source of resilience. Specifically, faith has been shown to help us bounce. It most certainly helps us connect with others. Spiritual community is essential to nurture practice. Our connection to a greater reality is the outer path of the spiritual quest.

When physically compromised, angry or depressed, or confused in mind, it is much harder to connect and integrate with a greater reality. When spirit emerges from a flourishing body, heart and mind, the outer path is clear. We feel resourced and motivated to embark on the spiritual quest. This is the inner path.

My conclusion is that a greater reality – what we call Spirit – is part of Spirit in action. To understand, connect with, and honour this greater reality is the goal of your resilience journey. Each one of us is free to explore this path.

Equally essential, this challenging quest demands that you cultivate and grow physical, emotional and mental strength. This is your source of power for the quest. It is, in our view, also a key part of spirit in action. Once again, each of us is free to embark on the practices that work for you.

In part two, I explore what a modern belief system might embrace.


Humans don’t Burn Out

Humans don’t Burn Out

In May 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included “Burn-out” as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress.

They call it an occupational phenomenon – not a diagnosis. That is a small mercy.

In the ICD-11, “burn-out” it is characterised by:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
  • Reduced professional efficacy

In our view, this is a step backwards. The workplace is confronting the complexity of mental illness at work. It incurs a trillion-dollar penalty. Introducing sloppy and confusing language can make the situation worse. Let’s consider this:

  1. Stress is mostly positive and stimulating. We thrive on it.
  2. When pressure is negative, is that the workplace or the person’s fault?
  3. While the pressure of work is a factor, in our experience poor self-management is source of suffering – poor sleep discipline, substance abuse, sloth, anxiety, anger and worry.
  4. There are times when managers abuse and bully staff.
  5. The symptoms listed are so vague and subjective as to be useless.
  6. Engines and electrical circuits may burn out. Human’s don’t do this.
  7. Burn-out is open for business now. Watch the numbers grow.
  8. Blame will land on employers, managers and the economy.

No one will win. Even on a good day, we can convince ourselves on all three WHO symptoms. What happens when we chose to drink too much, worried about our marriage, slept in over the weekend, or fume over a neighbour’s behaviour? And how do we distinguish burn-out from endogenous depression or PTSD?

Yes, we want workplaces to serve our society, compensate fairly, provide stimulation and meaning and even a community. For this to be sustainable, we need people to be physically, emotionally and mentally fit. At the end of the day, this is an individual responsibility. Workplaces can help significantly.

Here is a quick reminder of what we have found to be a far more constructive solution:

Help staff and managers understand how resilience fails

Copyright: Resilience Institute Limited

Train staff and managers to bounce with precision and skill

Copyright: Resilience Institute Limited

Build resilience

Copyright: Resilience Institute Limited
Rethinking Mental Health in the Workplace

Rethinking Mental Health in the Workplace

Work-related mental health conditions are overtaking physical safety as a critical risk in the workplace.

The World Health Organisation says anxiety and depression increased globally by 50% between 1990 and 2013 (Lancet, 2016). In May 2018, the American Psychiatric Association announced another 5% increase.

Leaders are scrambling to address the issue but it is so complex that many choose to turn a blind eye. They feel incapable of creating change.

The starting point is to be clear on definitions. When the term “mental health” is used, it is often thought of as a person’s level of depression or anxiety and their ability to bounce back from these conditions.

Mental health definitions

Clear definitions can help us address and solve the challenge:

Mental health = calm, alert, focused, agile, decisive.

Mental distress = distressed, anxious, depressed, hostile, withdrawn or delusional.

Resilience = a learned ability to recognise risk, bounce skilfully, and secure robust physical, emotional and mental well-being.

Diagnosis Mental Emotional Physical
Depression Confusion
Sleep Disturbance
Digestion Issues
Anxiety Worry
Distress Symptoms
Hostility Tunnel Vision
Immune Compromise
High Blood Pressure

Resilience interventions deliver a 30% reduction in “mental distress” symptoms

At the Resilience Institute, we measure the impact of our resilience interventions using the Resilience Diagnostic assessment. Our latest global report reveals that training interventions deliver an average 30% reduction in symptoms of depression (with results up to 82%) and a 32% average reduction in anxiety symptoms (with the highest result of an 86% reduction).

With antidepressants having a 3% impact, and sleep 6%, it is clear that people need an integral and practical solution to their mental distress.

Factor-level results from a sample of over 3000 participants include:

Results, as published in the Global Resilience Report 2018

Enabling leaders to have more effective conversations about mental health

Our program, Mental Fitness, has been developed to help leaders understand mental health, have effective conversations and improve productivity.

Core components of the program:

  1. Understand the impact of mental health at work
  2. Taking care of themselves
  3. Have effective conversations about mental health
  4. Creating resilience in their teams

Available both as face-to-face workshops, webinars and video training delivered via the Resilience App, the content includes:

  • Defining mental illness
  • Symptoms and Signs
  • Taking care of yourself
  • Effective conversations
  • The leader’s role and boundaries
  • Securing support
  • Crisis management
  • From Distress to Flow

Mental Fitness introduction

Dr Sven introduces the Leader’s Guide to Mental Fitness program.

10 Steps to Mental Health First Aid

10 Steps to Mental Health First Aid

We are waking up to the suffering and cost of mental illness. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives.

Affecting 450 million people today it is the leading cause of illness. The cost to business is USD $1 trillion.

Simple mental health initiatives at work return $4 to $10 for every $1 invested.

Each one of us – if personally concerned, as a caring family member, or as a colleague at work can apply these 10 steps to secure mental wellbeing and rediscover our joy.

1. Understand where mental illness comes from

Genes, early environment, adverse events and our personal behaviours all contribute in complex ways. We have much to learn. It appears that a positive, nurturing early environment is protective even when we inherit recognised gene patterns (1). Learning to deal with adversity early in life is helpful. Learning the practices of resilience is definitely protective and part of recovery. In tragic or traumatic events, it is normal to feel anxious or sad. In most cases recovery starts within two weeks. Extreme events can have long term consequences including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress (PTSD).

Destructive childhood experience, social media time (greater than 2 hours/day), sleep disturbance and increased temperature are thought to be causative. Heat, weather events and human conflict increase the risk of violence, anxiety, depression and PTSD (2). Anxious parenting, excess sensitivity, reduced activity, limited outdoor time and isolation are correlated (3).

2. Recognise distress as a normal part of dealing with adversity

Every organism needs to know what is good and what is dangerous. This is how life has been so successful. In overwhelming threat, it is appropriate to withdraw, collapse or burst into tears. This is called the Freeze reaction and is associated with sadness. In conflict, it can be appropriate to shout, bite or hit. This is called the Fight reaction and is driven by anger. When it is possible to run away or avoid a conflict we trigger the Flight reaction driven by fear. These reactions can save our lives in acute and serious events. If repeated, such as war, regular weather events or natural disasters we can be left with PTSD.

Our fast-paced, digital modern life assails us with small, continuous threats and has reduced the time we have to recover, sleep and reconnect with loved ones. Some experience sadness as they feel worn down, dominated, isolated or abused. This can become depression. Some experience fear under continued threat or risk. This can become anxiety. Other get angry as they flail against difficulty. This can become hostility and rage.

While freeze, fight and flight force a reaction, the feelings of sadness, fear and anger can linger. Sadness is telling us to seek safety and reconnect with love and joy. Fear is telling us to move toward safety and calm. Anger is telling us to disable the threat.

These are normal emotions designed to protect and support you (4). We can learn to notice them and respond skilfully to the message. We can get stuck in in these destructive emotions. Unpleasant and repeating physical, emotional and thinking experiences dominate our being. When they become inappropriate to the context and inhibit normal function, we have to consider clinical depression, anxiety disorders or hostility disorders.

3. Know that we can recover and treatment is effective

Recovery, over time, is the normal outcome. Even in the case of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder sensible life management and treatment is effective. In the case of depression, anxiety and hostility, firm and caring support, lifestyle improvement, counselling, meditation, positivity and thinking skills can be curative. Medication should not be the default treatment (5).

4. Recognise, understand and counter anxiety

Address through the three lenses of body, emotion and mind. The body wants to run; heart rate increases, blood flows to legs (from skin and gut), breath rate increases, adrenaline in the body, nor-adrenaline in the brain and eventually cortisol increases. We feel this through the emotion of fear (nervous, anxious, terrified or horror). The mind is caught in loops of worry about future consequences.

Understanding this allows us to move about, relax our muscles, slow our breathing and seek safe, reassuring spaces – gentle music, nature, touch and sleep help. We can watch carefully for the first signs of fear and immediately remember calm, safe and peaceful images. This counters the fear with calm. Finally, we can watch for worries, write them down and challenge them. As we get better we can redirect our attention to the present moment.

5. Recognise, understand and counter depression

In depression the body wants to withdraw, collapse and be supported; posture slumps, head and eyes drop downward, fatigue increases, tears and early waking may occur. Cortisol increases. We feel disappointed, sad, isolated and hopeless. Our thoughts are trapped in personalising blame (“everything bad always happens to me”). We ruminate on negative thinking about the past. Optimism fades.

Understanding this allows us to sit up, look up and seek comfort from others. Exercise, fresh air, nature and a good sleep can help. We can acknowledge our sadness and push firmly toward happy thoughts, appreciate small things like sunshine and beauty, and seek joy and a smile. We counter sadness with appreciation, gratitude and joy. Counter the negative rumination by remembering that you are not alone, there are things to appreciate, and nurture hope and resolve that you will feel better soon. Being present to the moment helps.

6. Learn the practical steps of rapid bounce

Mastering bounce is your key to resilience – both sustaining your optimal life and growing from adversity (post-traumatic growth). Use the diagram below to help you recognise how resilience fails. Learn how you experience each level. Then practice specific practical actions that you can do to reverse the downward spiral.

7. Take care of your body

Your body and your physical wellbeing is ‘ground zero’. Thoughts and emotions have been designed to help the body deal with adversity and seek a positive state of living. Taking good care of your body is the core of a good life, prevention, resilience and recovery. It is proven to treat mental illness. Secure enough sleep at the right time. Be physically active every day. Eat well – less sugar, more vegetables and more Mediterranean. Get out in nature and sunshine most days. Stretch every morning. Slow your breathing and relax for at least eight minutes per day.

8. Cultivate positive emotion

Positive emotions activate vagal tone, improve health, increase happiness and improve our thinking. Stimulating happiness (even a chopstick between your teeth) counters depression. Calm relaxation counters anxiety. Kindness and compassion counters hostility. Gratitude, appreciation, contentment, passion, joy, serenity and enthusiasm are others. Every time you find a way to take time for a positive feeling you are more mentally fit.

9. Notice and direct your thoughts

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) has proven to be as effective as medication in depression. It can be applied to all forms of adversity. In essence, it is simple:

  • Pay attention to the content of your thoughts – write them down
  • Challenge your thinking – test whether the thoughts are accurate
  • Reframe the thoughts in more constructive terms

For example, in depression you may notice the thought “everything bad always happens to me”. Counter with: “Well, not everything. Yesterday was a good day. Others have challenges too.”

In fear, you may notice “how will I ever meet the deadline”. Counter with: “If I don’t, we will get by. If I turn my focus to what I need to do right now, we might get there. No point in worrying.”

10. Be kind and considerate to others

Seek joy and fulfilment by doing good things for others. Altruism (thoughtful, genuine kindness to others) helps you as much or more than those you help.

Start by being kind to yourself. Many of us are self-critical and hard on ourselves. Be gentle on yourself. Remember your goodness. Take time to enjoy and celebrate. To get started, sit quietly breathing slowly. As you inhale bring kindness inward. As you exhale let your goodness radiate out.

Use your altruism to be involved in a charity, helping someone in need, or choosing a job that does good things for others. Even sitting quietly and radiating out peace, love and joy to everyone you can think of has a powerful positive on every aspect of wellbeing – even the structure and function of your brain.


  1. Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017.
  2. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, 2019
  3. i-Gen, Jean Twenge, 2017
  4. Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things, 2018
  5. Johann Hari, Lost Connections, 2018