For chess Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson the game became a gateway to exploring how spirituality can be harnessed to tackle the world’s interlocking environmental, political and social crises.
When Jonathan Rowson was 15 he competed in a chess tournament in France where he found himself pitted against Sergei Makarichev, a Russian more than twice his age. Ranked among the world’s elite players, Makarichev had earned the title of Grandmaster the year before Jonathan was born. If Jonathan felt intimidated, he didn’t let it affect his form. He beat the older man, then went on to become British champion and win a Grandmaster title of his own.
Looking back at the pivotal match more than 25 years later, Jonathan has little interest in reliving teenage triumphs. Ever since he’d learned to play as a young boy, mastering the game was never only about winning: he saw chess as a path to self-knowledge. His most enigmatic opponent had always been himself. “The game was a kind of mirror for my own mind, in which I got to understand myself better, and became very interested in my mistakes,” he says, speaking on a crisp autumn morning at an outdoor cafe in a park near his home in Putney in south-west London. “That’s what kept me in chess: a fascination with how our mind can screw up.”
With the window to avert potentially civilisation-collapsing climate breakdown closing fast, Jonathan is intent on harnessing the mindset he honed in professional chess to serve a bigger agenda: tackling the world’s interlocking environmental, political and social crises. The vehicle for this endeavour is Emerge, a new platform supported by Jonathan and Tomas Björkman, a Swedish entrepreneur and philanthropist. The goal is to connect activists, futurists, creatives and others who share the intuition that global mega-problems are best understood as reflections of the madness in our own minds. Solving them will therefore depend as much on spurring personal transformation at scale as it will on developing new technology or instigating political action. Shorthand for the Emerge agenda could be: ‘Spirituality meets climate change.’
“People are finding each other, and noticing that there’s some kind of pattern that connects those who are feeling that — on the one hand — the world’s achieved a great deal and things are in good shape in certain respects. And on the other hand, there’s a sense of which everything may have to change, or will be changed anyway, and we have to somehow steer it in a certain direction,” Jonathan says, nursing a mug of coffee. “Emerge recognises that this is a global phenomenon — this tumultuous change happening in various spheres of life — and there’s a response to that from the inner world: Who are we and what matters? What is purpose? What is value? How do we live together? How do we make individual lives matter? But how do we cooperate as well?” Jonathan’s choice of almost metaphysical language to frame the challenge may seem at odds with his background as a competitive player in a game where there are – quite literally – no shades of grey. Attaining the peak of his powers in his mid-20s, he reigned as British champion from 2004-6 before retiring. But his journey of self-discovery through chess evolved in symbiosis with a deeper search for meaning, spurred by the turmoil he faced in his early life growing up in Aberdeen, the hub of Scotland’s oil industry.
Jonathan’s father, an artist and teacher, suffered from schizophrenia and was sometimes forced to go into a psychiatric hospital, putting his mother under enormous strain. he would visit a nearby park in search of sanctuary from the troubles at home. “I remember the park as a child where I spent a lot of time alone, and yet not feeling really alone,” he says. “Sort of feeling ‘held’ at some level, feeing that things fundamentally made sense, and I had to feel my way into them.” When the family eventually fell apart, Jonathan’s mother moved him to London and began a new relationship. When that didn’t work out, he moved back home to live with his grand-father. “During that time, chess was an escape, and a safe place – and a place where I could also sense myself getting stronger,” says Jonathan, whose new book The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life, blends memoir and philosophy. “That became a positive drug in a way, and I kept doing it for many years.”
The game also brought Jonathan into contact with his own deepest vulnerability. When he was 11, he represented Scotland in a match against England in the town of Bearsden near Glasgow. Scotland had already fallen too far behind to have a hope of winning the tournament, but supporters told him that if he won the next game, then his country would lose less badly to England than ever before. The pressure proved too much. “I crumbled and lost, and I cried for hours,” he says. “Looking at it with adult lenses – the feeling of crying so deeply and so long was a recognition that this really mattered to me.”
Jonathan began to explore spirituality in a more systematic way as a student studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. Learning Transcendental Meditation, the technique popularised by the film director David Lynch, he began to experience entirely new states of consciousness: the world somehow richer and more luminous. He began to appreciate that reality – at its deepest level – might be a lot weirder than he had supposed.
His engagement with spiritual questions deepened at Oxford when he met his future wife Siva Thambisetty, a legal academic from India. Learning Kirtan chanting on visits to her homeland, Jonathan’s attitude towards religion matured as he encountered people who clearly drew a profound sense of meaning and comfort from the pantheon of Hindu deities. “God has become slightly toxified in the Western tradition, because it’s associated with moral judgment and restriction of freedom, at some level,” Jonathan says. “Kirtan allowed me not to be threatened by the idea.”
After graduating, Jonathan spent a few years in Edinburgh and Oxford playing chess professionally while trying to figure out what to do with his life. A publisher heard about his skills on the board and asked him to come up with a book to fit what sounded like a snappy title: The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. Having being preoccupied with politics and philosophy as an undergraduate, he says writing a self help-oriented book served as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to a more profound reckoning with his own inner life. “I thought: ‘I better figure out what ‘sin’ means.’” Reading the English author Francis Spufford, he realised that “sin wasn’t about yummy transgressions such as chocolate and lingerie,” but a concept concerned with human fallibility. “We’re the kind of creature that doesn’t ‘get’ reality: we have to work a bit harder to think about what’s going on,” Jonathan says. “Something about our mental apparatus, emotions, thoughts and feelings are not perfectly suited to the world. There’s a certain sense that we have to overcome them, or develop them, to make a deeper contact with reality. I was getting into the idea that we’re fascinating creatures: Making the inward turn to see we’re not quite what we think we are.”
Jonathan decided to return to academia. He took a one-year masters at Harvard, bridging the gap between neuroscience and education, then pursued a PhD at the University of Bristol under the supervision of Guy Claxton, a lay Buddhist academic. At the beginning of his thesis on ‘wisdom,’ due to be published as a book in 2019, he quoted a passage from Claxton’s book Noises from the Dark Room that captured the importance of bridging the inner and the outer.
“Not to put too fine a point on it, the world is in a mess because the human mind is in a mess. The problems we face are not at root technological, political or economic; they are psychological and spiritual,” Claxton wrote. “And the mind is in a mess because it misunderstands itself. We pollute the skies and ruin the earth because we are confused about who and what we are... Our culture has developed a particularly disastrous mind-myth, and while that myth remains unconscious and unexamined, we will continue to wreck the nest and hurt each other.”
Much of Jonathan’s subsequent work has been about examining that ‘mind-myth’ and looking for ways to help society find a new one. His initial home for this enterprise was the Royal Society of Arts, where he spent six years and directed an initiative called the ‘social brain centre.’ He then co-founded a platform with Björkman called Perspectiva that aims to promote the evolution of a more conscious society by exploring the connections between real-world problems and what’s going on inside of us, summed up in the rubric: ‘systems, souls and society.”
Though Jonathan is clear that public life should engage more with spiritual questions, he is acutely conscious of how contested and polarising the word ‘spirituality’ can be. In his book Spiritualise, which explores the intersection of spirituality and politics, he argues that it makes more sense to speak about cultivating a ‘spiritual sensibility’ in the public sphere. He thinks the term is open enough to resonate among people with widely varying belief systems, but nevertheless clear in its implication that much current social and economic discourse is missing something of fundamental importance. “It’s a recognition that a normal relationship to the world is infused with a spiritual sensibility – it’s something about the sense of aliveness; the sense that things make sense; the sense that we belong in some way; that the best part of us comes out when we give to others and get out of our own heads. And yet reality — as it’s currently construed — pushes us away from that,” Jonathan says, referring to the many ways in which consumer culture, addictive technology and the economic system isolate people and sow division.
“It’s not as though that stuff goes away when you have an interesting spiritual experience, or go to a Vipassana retreat, or you take a psychedelic, or you do some rituals, some chanting or meditation,” he says. “The challenge of our time is bringing that openness towards reality somehow back into the public realm.”
How exactly to do this remains an open question. Jonathan believes that Emerge will start to come up with answer organically, helping to forge a ‘group consciousness’ among participants committed to transformation at the individual, social and global level. Some participants, he hopes, will go on to play a more ‘top-down’ role in crafting new policies or leading movements. But Emerge also aims to spawn more tightly-focused projects by helping social entrepreneurs and other change-makers forge new connections. “I think the defining feature is that we’re thinking in two directions at once that people might find a bit surprising: On the one hand we’re looking inwardly and it’s about emotional, psychological and spiritual matters,” he says. “And on the other hand, we’re thinking at the civilisation level: Not merely a policy-tweak here and there, but a sense that the whole Shebang may somehow have to change — not even change, but transform…and we have some responsibility to steward it, direct it, nurture it in a certain way.”
“That’s what keeps us together as a group,” Jonathan says. “And yet there’s also a certain amount of humility, and curiosity and discovery at its heart because we don’t quite know what the alternative really is.”
One of the greatest lessons he learned as a chess champion was to see the game from his adversary’s perspective. He hopes that this ability to perceive the ‘whole position’ he honed as a Grandmaster will serve Emerge well as its members seek to identify the most effective ways they can work to envision – and create – a more benign planetary future. “The opponent really gets into your head: Not just a particular person, but the whole notion of ‘what does the other side think? That’s very deeply ingrained in me,” Jonathan says. “There’s a part of me that wants to lay into the delusion of the growth paradigm, or the delusion of the fetishisation of work, and the insanity of destroying our only home. But I’m kind of a little tired of that slightly shrill language, because I want to forgive the people caught up in it, because I recognise that I’m also caught up in it. It’s not all about winning the battle: It’s about tilling the soil somehow.”
With the urgency of changing course on a global level ever more apparent, Emerge also represents a leap of faith: the hope that if enough people with enough self awareness and enough positive intent start to work together, then unexpected new possibilities will arise.
“Existential risks at a civilisational level are now ambient: They are part of our predicament,” Jonathan says. “The hope comes in that process of re-imaging who we are and where we’re going, which is spiritual at its heart because it’s about a renewed relationship to reality.”
Words by Matthew Green
Matthew Green is a journalist and author. After 14 years working as a correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he wrote his new book Aftershock: fighting war, surviving trauma and finding peace, which documents the struggles of British military veterans seeking new ways to heal from post-traumatic stress.
Photos by Harry Mitchell
Harry Mitchell is a London-based photographer whose work has been featured in GQ, Telegraph Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, 11Freunde and The Financial Times.