Thinking about Spirituality, Scepticism and Social Change

Thinking about Spirituality, Scepticism and Social Change

A reflection by Undine Whande and Rebecca Freeth, 2014


I am, at heart, a sceptic.  As the daughter of an Anglican minister, I have long considered it my duty. It used to be quite cool and interesting to be agnostic and I grew up imagining that the world I would inhabit as an adult would be full of agnostics and atheists; that my age would be one beyond religion.  How wrong I was.  Pentecostal churches have taken over the high street.  At a recent, super-trendy 24th birthday party in Joburg, an Idols finalist and two performance poets were followed onto the stage by Pastor Joe to lead us all in prayer and “a few words”.   I seemed to be the only party-goer looking uncomfortable.  Aghast would be a better description.

Probably because of my resistance in this matter, it’s taken me years to learn the difference between religion and spirituality. I’ve come to think of myself as mildly spiritual.  The state of bliss I enter when alone in the wild has a spiritual tint to it.  By that I mean I feel connected and vital.

The wonderful irony is that most of the people I co-facilitate with are deeply spiritual.  For them, the world is alive with meaning, with aligned intentions, with a universe full of messages.  I love these colleagues, deeply respect the work they do, but can’t find resonance with their beliefs.   This seems so unpopular a stance in our work on social change that I tend to keep quiet about it and only fidget a bit when the conversation takes a spiritual turn.

I write this in a state of ambivalence.  It would be easier to express myself on this matter if I was clearer, but that might take a long time.  I find that it’s often only when the words are on paper that I know what I really think, so this is an exercise in working with an opaque set of thoughts.    I am seeking my voice in this, instead of silence and fidgets. Perhaps you will be encouraged or provoked to enter a dialogue with me and together we will shed more light on what seems obscure to me now.

My ambivalence centres on questions about meaning, purpose and connection:  What do I do with the notion of synchronicity?  Is meaning prior to or post an event? What is the source from which I work?  Does my scepticism limit the potential for extraordinary things (some would call them miracles) to happen?   A year ago, I set out to find out more about the relationship between spirituality and social change.  Here’s where I’m at now.


In the midst of my questioning, I came across two readings, embedded in books written by contemporary philosopher-activists both of whom have an explicitly spiritual bent.  Each time I re-read these extracts, I feel a deep sense of relief that they have each found a way to read the world through eyes that are politically astute despite their spirituality.  Perhaps what I react against most strongly is naïve spirituality.  Michael Jackson (not of Thriller fame) writes:

“[Some] people are comforted by the thought of a hidden hand guiding if not governing our lives … wrongs are righted, mysteries solved, and miracles happen, not through our own actions but because of the inscrutable workings of fate.  Myself, I think only of the miracles that do not happen.  The lives that lack all rhyme and reason, the people who get away with murder, and the millions of unremembered coincidences that involve no transfiguring moment, no meeting with destiny, no path that makes all the difference.  When I think of the stones left unturned, the tears unshed, the deed undone, the doors that were never opened, and the sheer contingency of existence, I find it impossible to hear the word ‘synchrony’ without recoiling. And yet, for all my scepticism I am drawn to such stories, perhaps because a story would not be a story without coincidence, and since there is no inherent order in the world, the order we must artificially give to life through art must have recourse to such artifice.” Jackson: The Palm at the End of the Mind: relatedness, religiosity and the real (2009: 173-174)

Ian McCallum, South African psychiatrist, poet and explorer of wild places, writes:

“… I think we need to be careful of confusing synchronicity with the notion that every life incident is meant to be.  Certain life events do not appear to have any meaning at all and it is up to us to decide to give them meaning.  In other words, I disagree with those who support a deterministic view that everything from life-threatening illnesses to personal and collective tragedies are meant to be.  How can we possibly believe that tidal waves, earthquakes, human poverty, starvation, AIDS and man-made ecological crises are meant to be?  We either give these tragedies meaning or not, and, with time, we usually do.  Sometimes it is precisely what happens after the second act, the act of giving meaning to an event,  that determines one’s openness to the events that are bound to follow.  ‘Nothing has changed,’ says the unknown poet, ‘except my attitude – so everything has changed.’.  On the other hand, even the skeptics amongst us, when we are honest, will admit that there have been certain events in our lives when the sense of meaning has been immediate and profound.  There was no need for the second act.  This is synchronicity.” McCallum, Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature (2008:137-139)


About eighteen months ago, I hit exhaustion and developed a strong sense that I was fast using up a finite internal source of energy for my work.  I started to ask myself the question:  can I find a way to allow resources sourced beyond myself to flow through me and into my work?  As you can imagine, this was a troubling idea for an agnostic sceptic.  Part of me stands to one side and says: what on earth does this question even mean?  Another part of me says: how convenient to start thinking about “channelling energy from other sources” now.  Weirdo.

Questions about source are mixed up with dilemmas about effort and responsibility.   Where do we act from?  What does this mean for the amount of effort I apply to my work?  And how do I continue to take full responsibility for my work if the source of my energy, insight or leadership is outside of myself?

Recently, a colleague and I sat near a singing stream at Kirstenbosch to talk about this.  She said:

 [This conversation] sparks a memory of being a young practitioner and working with people in South Africa who had all been in the National Peace Accord and mostly working in peace committees with community mediation and the memory is of one of the older practitioners saying: ‘all of this you will not learn from a book. You can have models and concept and studied it all and when you come to the field you find that 80% of it is not the source of what you are working from.’ I remember thinking: yeah I can relate to that. In my work done before, in my teens, around intercultural communication and diversity, working with political consciousness processes of youth after ’89, taking young Eastern European and German groups to Auschwitz and Poland, I knew already that when I was working at my best, I was working from a place other than all my knowledge. I had a lot of knowledge, even then. I was studious and had the privilege of growing up in a family full of books. I had studied parents and all of that. I had lots of knowledge and I loved it. I loved reading and I loved being smart and smarting my answers out. I was probably quite a terrible know-it-all at some point. But I knew that, actually, in my most difficult situations with groups, I never worked form that place of any of those knowledges. I worked from a place other than that, not from knowledge learned from books. Those were always the moments when real shifts arose, when significant turning points happened, whether for me as a practitioner because of my own learning or for the group as well, for participants. So, it is almost like there is always that moment when you have to tear up the script. If you are good, that is the moment.

She paused and I asked her: What is your understanding of what it is that you are stepping into in those moments? After a long pause, she said:

There is a word – pure self. There is something, a me, that I step into that is very naked and bare, and it is that sense of: ohh okay so all I have really is me. And the me that has been shaped by this life and all the experiences I have had, that is all I have now. So I throw it in: This is me! This is it! And so all the embellishments fall away, and the thinking falls away especially. There is a mindless-ness in that mindful moment. It produces a mindfulness, but there is also a mindlessness. I am dropping into something very bare, and with that bareness comes a humility, which is: Oh wow! Well, God, you put me into this situation, so it better be enough what I am. And then there is always a sense of: of course it is enough! Why would you be in this situation? Of course, it is enough! But each time it is almost like I am actually being squeezed through that eye of the needle -not just that I found it, finally, but now I also have to squeeze through it. And that is really not a pleasant experience necessarily. I always keep thinking it should be. That is one of the follies, that at my best I am very often not in a pleasant place. Have you had such moments?

She turns the question back to me and I say:

Yes, and your description of just being fully present and in the moment and perhaps mindless is an accurate one for me too. I had several of those moments when I feel like I am able to be full present and I am able to be a vector through which a difficult moment passes.  … I am in the moment. I am present and I feel, often – not always, skilful in that moment. I feel calm and able to be a resource to the process. That is one thing I have noticed.

We sit in another long silence and then she picks up the thread again:

… how many times have I burned myself out and always come to the point of just meeting just old me: you have driven yourself into the ground again trying to save the world, redeem others, please others, or please yourself and your own desires but from a limited place, from a place of poor imagination, from a place of poverty of the imagination. Over the last few years, I guess, I have connected more and more to something I have always had even as a child. My mother commented on it: the ability to just do many things and still be doing them when others are saying: how come this child is never tired?  … For me the main breakthrough really came with morning practice when really starting to do morning practice as a discipline, not just a as a nicety here and there, but as a discipline. Everything started changing, absolutely everything. It yielded a pull, an inner energy or something like access to an unending flame, to something infinite. That doesn’t mean I always get it right or I don’t still burn out and crash. I do. It just is what comes up when you are speaking because I recognise it – that there is the inner infinite and that it is calling me at the moment so strongly that I have to more and more give myself permission to recognise that that is indeed my work to be attending to this inner transformation. That is a large part of what then enables the presence for the work in the world …

There is something that strikes a chord in this for me. While it may not make sense to me in a particularly coherent way, I am drawn to the idea that if I find a practice, daily rhythm and internal discipline, I am making myself more available to other sources of energy.

The most obvious source of energy I can think of is the sun.  So, of late, I have embarked on a morning practice with the sun.  I either walk to the highest point in my neighbourhood so I can watch her rise above the horizon.  Or I do a short yoga routine of sun salutations facing the rising sun. It fills me with the purest joy to get that first glimpse of the ball of fire around which we revolve each day.

The Extraordinary

I’ve generally allowed the injunction to ‘trust the process’ to float just out of reach of my own convictions, giving me space to neither believe nor disbelieve it.  Recently, when a co-facilitator named this as a core principle of her work I found an internal voice saying with equal clarity: I do not trust “the process”.  What a treacherous thought!   I’ve been chewing on it since.  I think what I mean is that our social world is one big process and it’s a mess.

Having said that, I guess that my work as a dialogue facilitator involves an implicit trust  in a particular kind of social process – dialogue entered into with a commitment to seeing what is otherwise invisible, hearing what is otherwise silent / silenced and making more conscious choices (about how to be and how to act) as a result.  But do I fully trust it?   Unlikely!

Does my conditional sense of trust limit the potential of the processes I facilitate?  Do I close the door on the extraordinary by virtue of my scepticism?  I don’t know.  It’s possible.  But it would be beyond cynical if I adopted an instrumental version of belief in order to open that door.  So I’m stuck here for the meantime, observing my more spiritual colleagues with deep affection, seeking to learn from them, but knowing deep down that I can’t enter through their doorways.  Perhaps I’ll find my own with time.  Perhaps not.


The invisible

..and so I pick up the talking piece again, in this dance of a conversation. I pick up the words – ‘the world is one big process and it’s a mess’ and also your closing words of ‘perhaps not’. I often feel at a loss with regards to the size and complexity of the world. I feel even more at a loss with regard to our human capacity for violence and inflicting pain. I often fail to see an inherent order, or sense of the divine, when confronted with violent death and what seems to me, senseless suffering. And yet, there is an inner knowing in me of a place were it all does make sense, complexity, suffering, even death. This does not mean any of the real lived experience is easy or that it is easy to access the place from where this sense of possibility of a divine order (if you want to call it that) arises. This is the point. It has less to do with ‘knowing’ something in the way that produces certainties and definite statements about the world we live in. It’s more like an inherent sensation of the benevolent core at the heart of this universe. You mention trust and your experience of a ‘conditional trust’! I recall being an 11-year old late at night in conversation with God after my father had a heart attack. The conversation went something like this: ‘If you let him live, I’ll believe in you and will be at your service for the rest of my life.’ Well, he did not live. So that was that. I was done with God. Or so I thought. At that moment. In my anger and rebellion at a universe that takes away the fathers of 11-year olds, I do recall moments of a lucid clarity when I knew beyond doubt that all was as it was, and that was that. It was somehow okay. My path would be shaped by this interrupted fathering but what would come of it, would be good. Painful, yes, but somehow sensible. In another sensibility, that is, than the one I was accustomed to. This inner sense of knowing, or perhaps just the memories of those few ‘lucid’ moments in my life so far, are key to a foundational sense of trust that I inhabit with gratitude when it arises. A trust without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. This trust – so I am told – is what sometimes shines through my life and actions and proves attractive to others. Perhaps they think I ‘know’ something worth learning. But  I don’t know, I have no certainties for sale, no miracle talk on offer. Just my own sense of a connection with the force that I am made of that is deepening with maturing, and perhaps with meditation. In such moments I find a form of acceptance of myself as I am and of things as they are, that can be quite puzzling. How can I be so content, happy and peaceful when around me there is so much suffering, violence and death? These are old questions for us humans. Perhaps you are already yawning, asking yourself: why am I reading this?

I invite the quality behind the doubt, the one that breaks down certainties and prompts me to ask afresh: ‘Is that so?’ and ‘So what?’ The doubt itself can be paralysing, but the quality behind the doubt is question, is quest, feels fresh, much better than 1001 ways of framing real lived fluidity into the certainty of religions. At the core is experience. The sun salutations, greetings the sun, finding a reference point out there. Or perhaps a reverence point. Being in meditation on my yoga mat. Chanting with the sufis at the mosque next door last week. Singing in the Rosa Choir, heart-wrenching old struggle songs. Something real enters, real but unseen, something of the realm of spirit and soul. I may first need the extra-ordinary to recognise it, but it actually is there all along.

The ordinary

Once I got to know the experience of being present in the world in a spirited and soulful way, ‘it’ starts showing up in more and more moments. In the small things of everyday life – my older daughters gentle face, my little daughter mischievous smile, a raindrop on the window, a paper snowflake, memories of a bygone Christmas. The mundane is enchanted and I can dwell in that to my wellbeing. And yes – it can be disenchanted rather quickly. It is easy to ‘call me to order’ by pointing out the dreamy nature of such a state of being, the naivete, the other-worldyness. To drain the enchantment. Yet even when all is now sobered and the world is once more big, bad and terrible, keeping me safely in check through fear, I still feel the flicker, the glimmer, perhaps a giggle not laughed out loud. As if that other reality of my enchantment, proclaimed unreal, is the actual one and this is one just the movie. How much is the chase after the ever extraordinary a limitation, maybe more so than doubt?

Be that as it may, in my social transformation work, the two movements both serve me. The enchantment at the core of all true impulse for change is the lifeblood and –flow of my work. The disenchantment allows me to function well in the world of visible and tangibles, to get up and eat because I am hungry, to get the kids to school, to go work. To contemplate what others may think so that I can connect to them better (not to fear them more, or please them more). Miracles happen in any case, it is more a question of whether I notice them all around me? A lot of the time I am too accelerated to notice, but if I become slow enough, I do.

So, perhaps there is a good dose of naivete involved, you are right. Yet i would not want to be called a ‘believer’. It suggest something unconscious to me, as if guided by a ‘blind faith’, Could there be such a thing as being guided by a ‘seeing faith’, a trust in the world with eyes wide open? Can you see (the pain, the ugly alongside the good and beautiful) and still stay with the eyes open to the miracle that is life? To have both astute discernment and complete connection in one consciousness?

I recall Thomas Moore reflecting on his own efforts to ‘grow up’ and ‘stop being naive’ when he realises that if he did, he would no longer be himself (and a lot less happy). Is it ‘naive’ to be happy? I doubt that it is a sign of adulthood to disbelieve. Nor do I sense that faith is a sign of naivete. Maybe it is more like the ‘simplicity on the other side of complexity’ that JP Lederach talks about? Maybe it is the gentle certainty on the other side of doubt? That there is a purpose to existence because I exist. Doesn’t mean a creator makes no mistakes or has no reason to cry about them. Perhaps partly the imagination of the divine as perfect in our human sense has something to do with it. The fact that pain is unpleasant and still shapes us.

Rebecca & Undine

Exploring the Real Work of Social Change

Rebecca asked the question: why would a “believer” and a “sceptic” work together? Undine’s instant reaction: ‘but I am not a believer’…

Rebecca feels that working together across our differences can feel clumsy. Undine has no real issues with clumsiness as long as she feels a strong connection to Rebecca. She can be less concerned about the reactions of the outer world, following some inner voice, and sometimes this is really challenging when working with her in a team. Rebecca believes that if we can hold the two poles of a tension between us, if we can bring our different but complementary ways of being and seeing to bear, then this can deeply enrich our shared social change work. Undine believes that, at t he heart, our ways of being are not really that different; she forever seeks that which connects and sometimes ignores the differences.  This discerning of our differences and intent to transcend them creates a meaningful, if sometimes uncomfortable, place to learn together.  It’s worth the awkwardness.

As we have written and read the individual pieces towards this chapter, we had moments of self-consciousness.  Rebecca hesitated before sending her piece to Undine, feeling a little exposed by a balder rendition of my scepticism than she usually expresses.  Undine nearly swallowed her words mid-sentence when responding to the first draft of Rebecca’s piece, aware her language may sound “esoteric”.  We asked herself: How can we instead be emboldened by the frank gaze we each turn upon ourselves, knowing that this relationship allows for a high degree of visibility? How can we be confident that we can behold, and be beheld by, the other?

Rebecca says: I know that I need Undine in our work together.  And I have learned that she needs me too.  I am able to work with what is now; she is able to work with what could be.  In our facilitation, I can support the people we’re working with to become more conscious of what’s happening in the moment; describing raw data of this experience, without interpretation, so we can see ourselves in a clear-eyed way and learn.  Undine can work with a more mysterious dimension, allowing the inexplicable in towards a felt sense of shared meaning.  I can help the group to dig, engage at depth, and work with shadows.  Undine can do that too, but she is also able to work with possibility and light, helping to give wings to the moments of transcendence.

Undine says: I am not convinced that there is such a chronology where the one works with ‘what is’ and the other with ‘what could be’. To my sense there is only now to work with, but in the now, there exist simultaneously different options, different possibilities of reality. One moment it is manifest, at another it is pure potential, pretty much like the quantum physicists describe ‘energy’ travelling in and out of existence, to then be perceived as ‘matter’ (but part of it is always pure possibility).

Rebecca finds that: The work of social change benefits from both poles being fully held.  My despair about the “mess” is part of the picture, as is Undine’s faith in a “divine order”.  We don’t have to send either feeling into exile if we can hold both between us.  That much is easy!  Finding the complementarity within our differences is only the start. The real skill is threefold:

Firstly, not getting saddled with one end of the pole.  Being fluid with our roles so that I don’t calcify into despair and Undine doesn’t get lost in flight.

Secondly, creating space for other positions along that spectrum (and at various angles to this spectrum) to emerge. If, between us, we can hold these two poles, what other ways of seeing, being and acting are given permission to also show up fully?

Thirdly, reading the social process closely enough, across our different ways of seeing, that we know when to work at one particular pole, and how that work can enable movement again towards the other pole.  If there is a need for working in a more grounded way, how can I facilitate this process so that it (re)creates not only a springboard towards flight, but enough of a safety net that people can, in time, take a running jump on that springboard and be borne skywards?   How can working to stretch our awareness about what is laying the foundations for a bridge to be able to cross all kinds of edges towards a more mysterious dimension of our social change work?

Undine contemplates in response: Is it really such opposites, are we really poles? It is clear to me from the many conversations that Rebecca experiences our difference much more acutely than I do, and is affected by them in ways I need to learn to recognise and honour. I feel more drawn to thinking about us in terms of a ‘circumference’ than poles, so perhaps travelling at polar opposite moment along a circle, always seemingly at odds as long as we do not recognise that fact that we are on the same circumference. What could be is also now already, just unseen. What is in existence now may also be no longer alive, just still visible since it is manifest as matter and form. What is more alive may be unseen and asking for our support.

I wanted to say at the end that I am neither believer nor sceptic but something in between. On re-reading myself in writing I must say that it all sounds pretty whacky to my sound solid PhD-trained mind. It is only with great effort and courage that I can even bear to read myself saying these things, let alone contemplate publishing them somewhere. So, somewhere in this journey, the sceptic is me, too. As long as I can laugh at myself, that should be fine.