Introducing the Network… Wendy Dossett

3 06 2013

[Wendy Dossett is a member of the Philosophy and Religious Practices steering committee and is helping put together the Buddhism and Human Flourishing conference for the series. She is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Chester and Principal Investigator on the Higher Power Project.]


Wendy Dossett



As a generalist in religious studies I’ve tended to be more interested in anthropology and ethnography than in philosophy or theology,  so being part of an interdisciplinary network that takes seriously ‘lived religion’ appeals to me.  These tendencies arose from my experience as a 21 year old, of living at a Shin Buddhist Temple in Tokyo for six months in the early 1990s, doing the field research for my PhD.  Having done an undergraduate module in Buddhism, coupled with my own naïve and romanticised reading of the usual texts westerners interested in Buddhism pick up (Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Humphreys, Kornfield, Bashō), I was spectacularly ill-equipped to process the reality of a wealthy denomination, which did not practice meditation, had priests who married, ate meat, drank alcohol, and rode 1000cc motorbikes, and built enormous multi-million yen bronze statues of the Buddha.  The cognitive dissonance I experienced I see as a problem not located in Shin Buddhism, but in my essentialised appropriation of Buddhism as a whole. This experience has been a source of my fascination with (and concern about) the mismatch between lived religion, and academic/school textbook presentations ever since.  I trained as a teacher, and have worked as a teacher trainer, A level examiner and text-book writer, and I’m secretary of the Shap Working Party for Religions in Education. I was for several years an Associate Director of the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales, Lampeter (now Trinity Saint David),  which archives accounts from the general public of religious/spiritual experiences. Here I became interested in the ways in which personal religious and spiritual experiences relate to language and culture, and relate or (often more interestingly) don’t relate to religious institutions.  My current project couples this interest in personal spiritual experiences with some real-world experience of working with addicts and alcoholics in a residential rehab.

The Higher Power Project is a qualitative study mapping the language used by those in Twelve Step recovery from addiction regarding ‘higher power’. The Twelve Step approach (such as in Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous) characterises addiction as a state of personal powerlessness for which the only solution is a power outside of the self.  The Twelve Step programme, designed to enable people to access such power, is often described as a ‘spiritual’ (‘but not religious’) programme.  The research project seeks to clarify some of this terminology, and to report the diversity of the language used by the people involved.  Our aim is to find out whether there is evidence to challenge some perceptions of twelve step programmes (namely, that they require belief in God) and whether contemporary practitioners speak about ‘higher power’ in more diverse ways than is often thought. This work brings us into dialogue with secularised professions, such as social work and the addictions treatment industry, and into inevitably highly charged debates about the place of spirituality in understanding addiction.

This work also links up with my research interest in Buddhism, as Mindfulness-based and Compassion-focused approaches become increasingly part of the discussion about the role of spirituality in addictions treatment.  Understanding and mapping the territory of all these debates requires some of the thinking that this network has been set up to do, so I’m very excited about being a part of it.