We’re beckoning wholeness. And wholeness is beckoning us.

Faced with crises big and small, individual and collective, age-old and uniquely current, we find ourselves continually navigating the painful costs of separation. Fear and misunderstanding leave us with disconnected ways of being in and seeing the world, which fosters and furthers human struggle.

We turn to transformation, revolution, and mystery. The call is at once spiritual and civic.

If we allow gratefulness to lead the way, I think we have a profound opportunity before us in ushering in a different paradigm, one rooted in wholeness. Opening to this opportunity (opportunity incidentally being a form of liberation in and of itself), we open to freedom, attuning to ourselves, each other, and the divine. We turn to transformation, revolution, and mystery. The call is at once spiritual and civic.

Photo: Dino Reichmuth

I imagine spirituality and social change as two nearly indistinguishable peaks of a ridge that with perspective can be seen as one summit to freedom. Spirituality offers us the why for committing to social change and cultivates qualities like curiosity, empathy, creativity, resilience, mercy that are crucial to activism. While spirituality may exist in our lives as a set of beliefs that we carry out, I find deeper resonance thinking about and experiencing it as the realization of spirit — that which awakens us to our true selves, to ways of being and seeing that illuminate life in all of its grand mystery. Spirituality naturally flows into social change efforts as wholehearted engagement with the world inspires deeper intimacy with and compassion for ourselves, each other, and the Earth as a whole. Social change work reciprocally deepens spirituality — and in fact, I find my own experience of this work to be a form of spiritual practice — as engaging in social change emboldens us to listen to, trust, and act from our true selves on behalf of that which we come to cherish through our experience of spirit. With the appropriate lens, we can easily see both spirituality and social change as experiences of aliveness, one existing as and through the other. Inner and outer transformation are inseparable, mutual, and generative.

That our culture seems to have come to regard spirituality and social change as isolated pursuits speaks to the pitfalls of our propensity toward separation. Is it possible that one can be spiritual without engaging in social change? Or that one can be an activist (in the most general sense of being an engaged human in the world) bereft of spirituality? Likely not forever or with any degree of wholeness. 

We see this separation manifested in the forms of spiritual bypassing, narcissistic spirituality, alienating activism, and burnout.

The disconnection of the two paths prevents our summit to freedom — we find ourselves unable to traverse the entirety of the ridge that is the mountain, a crevasse blocking our way. We see this separation manifested in the forms of spiritual bypassing, narcissistic spirituality, alienating activism, and burnout. When we sever spirituality from social change, we hoard our liberation and risk stagnating and festering like the Dead Sea; such conditions pave the way for toxic individualism, clouded judgment, and abuses of power. When we pursue social change absent wholehearted spirituality, we not only risk burnout from atrophied compassion and courage and heart, but we also risk unstable social movements that are prone to the same conditions of a spirituality reserved for the self. In both cases, neither path to freedom holds up to its word: We find them stripped of their essences so far as to invalidate the labels “spirituality” and “social change.” 

When instead we rest in the intertwined nest of spiritual and civic commitment, we find wholeness. Akin to the great fullness of life, this wholeness holds everything, including our humanity, which we see elevated and manifest in both paths to freedom. Acknowledging the symbiosis of spirituality and social change — a relationship demonstrated in many of history’s greatest social movements — we welcome vulnerability and imperfection as we grow through practice. We cultivate belonging as we tune into our own story, the stories of those around us, and our collective story of humanity. We create space for each of us to embrace our individual and communal roles in honoring, protecting, and progressing these stories.

Photo: Dino Reichmuth

In my experience, rooting social change efforts in spirituality has become the only way for me to effectively move forward and sustain my commitment. Having previously worked toward social change in ways that felt largely disconnected from my sense of self — my spirit — I felt ill-equipped to confront the existential depression and overwhelming sense of despair that surfaced through the work; I felt lost as I tried to logically determine my path in a landscape with seemingly far too much to tend, far too little time, and far too little hope of ever solving anything. Nourishing my spirit (though at first, I wasn’t even consciously aware that what I was doing was spiritual as I simply thought I was taking care of myself), I discovered that heart — and honoring paths that resonate most with the heart — has a place in the work, that there are more ways than one (and they all have value), that I don’t need to have all the answers (nobody does), and that it’s an inexact process in which I might not be “solving” anything.

Here, through this perspective of wholeness, I found, and I think all of us can find, an experience of freedom. When we properly summit, we light upon the ever-present opportunity to live wholeheartedly and with humility. Our active engagement with spirituality and social change becomes more receptive; we release to a more expansive and essential form of life where we don’t need to know, we don’t need to compulsively do, and we don’t need to forge ahead alone. We listen. And we honor whatever resonant calls arise. 

Embodied in our humanity, spirit wants to circulate as the life breath it is, and social change wants to live through this breath.

Embodied in our humanity, spirit wants to circulate as the life breath it is, and social change wants to live through this breath. These experiences of aliveness want to exist within and between us as one source, informing and mirroring each other in the way all of life does through mutual belonging. We act with gratefulness as we draw on and move from this source, unleashing the possibilities of wholeness for the world. We find personal and communal peace as we give ourselves over to the great fullness of life and each other. We listen, surrender, and give voice to the impassioned call of our hearts and the hearts of others. We sing out as one for the benefit of all — awake to, holding, and alive in the great unknowable mystery that cradles us all. 

Our ongoing exploration of the relationship between spirituality and social change inspired the Radical Aliveness and Belonging symposium, which took place September 27, 2019.

What is your experience of the intersection between spirituality and social change? Please share your thoughts below.

Rose Zonetti

Rose Zonetti

About the author

Rose Zonetti is a licensed massage therapist in Buffalo, NY. She previously enjoyed working as A Network for Grateful Living's Community Program Coordinator, during which time she had the opportunity to write for the website and explore what it means to be alive, gratefully, in this world.