Spirituality and Social Change

Submitted by Derek Alton on October 8, 2015 - 8:35am

I have always been fascinated by social change, the process by which we transform society.  I think social change shows humanity in our full glory, exploring our full potential where imagination and reality collide on a large scale with people, both as the painter and the paint.  As a result I have always been curious about the strange breed of people who seem to be at the center of this action.  Some are larger than life figures while others work in the shadows without ever getting the recognition they deserve.  Call them social innovators or systems changers or misfits for all I care, but “they change things, they move the human race forward.” (quoting the famous apple commercial

Make no mistake, this is a strange breed of people who see the world differently, not for what it is but for what it could be, people who seem compelled to challenge the status quo, to say this is wrong, we can be more, we can be better.

These are my people!

So what is at the heart of this group of people, that drives us, sustains us, inspires us and defines us?  Maybe it is the one thing that we seem to struggle to talk about with each other.  That thing we all do without really realizing it whether it be at work or when we are alone in our bedroom.  The word that captures this mysterious dynamic within us is spirituality.

Now, I don’t mean spirituality as a religious thing, though for some it is.  Rather I am referring to that force, flow, energy or idea that compels social innovators like us to do things different, bigger than any sane or rational person would.  It is something that seems to be larger than us; it comes from both within and beyond us, sometimes driving us and often times dragging us forward.

Being a social innovator is a difficult road.  We are going against the main stream, against societal norms.  We are challenging power structures and making people uncomfortable.  As a result we are often the odd ball in any group.  The round pegs in a world full of square holes.  People don’t seem to get us; they don’t understand why we can’t just be satisfied and do things normally.  It is at times an incredibly lonely road. 

Often we have no idea what we are doing.  We know something is wrong but we do not know what the solution is, or we have the solution but no one seems to care, or our plan doesn’t work.  As a result we often fail way more than we succeed.  We call this “failing forward” and tell ourselves it is a normal part of innovation, but that doesn’t make it any easier, that doesn’t take the disappointment bite away or satisfy funders.  I can’t tell you how many times I have thrown up my hands in frustration and defeat, even been to the point of tears.  Being a social innovator is at times an incredibly difficult road.

Yet we do it, we pick ourselves back up and try again.  Why?  Because we are compelled by something greater then ourselves, that fuels and drives us, that keeps us moving forward when we want to do nothing more then give up and binge watch House of Cards while eating ice cream. 

Yet, we do not seem to talk to others about this.  Why? Maybe it is because it seems crazy.  Maybe it is because we are afraid we are the only ones.  Maybe it is because it sounds spiritual or even worse, religious, in a world where this is looked down upon by many.  Or maybe it is because we don’t really understand it ourselves.  Yet this force drives us, pulls us often kicking and screaming away from better paying, more stable jobs and simpler easier lives.  It pushes us to work ridiculous hours to the point of burn out.  It is what carries us through the lows and makes the highs so sweet.

If this, whatever it is, is so foundational to our success, how do we create more space for it?  What are potential spiritual practices that we can develop?

I think first and foremost we need to talk about it more with each other.  Move it out of the shadows and into the light.  Each one of us, through our experiences, has nurtured a relationship with this force that compels us and I think we can teach each other a lot.  I will get the ball started with 10 practices I have learned so far in my journey.

  1. Stillness – I am often on the go so much, cramming as many meetings and tasks as I can into my day.  In the frenetic pace of the Internet age, I have come to realize the importance of carving out space just to be still.  For me meditation is a practice that fosters this.  I also have a mindfulness app that dings periodically throughout the day reminding me to just be still.  To get out of my head and just be.  Sometimes I have too much energy so I go for a walk, or run and by the time I finish I feel more still.  I become more awake to the present moment.
  2. Listening – In systems change literature, we often talk about the importance of listening to the system before we act.  Listening for what is trying to emerge and then helping it along, or sometimes even getting out of the way.  In a world full of noise, true authentic listening has become a lost art.  Once you create the stillness, the challenge is to listen, without filling the gap yourself.  It is in this gap, this place of stillness and emptiness that something called emergence happens within us, but also within any system or organization that practices stillness and listening.  It is from this dynamic of emergence that new insights and potentialities arise. 
  3. Play – I often take life too seriously and put a lot of pressure on myself.  In contrast, it is when I am at play that I feel the most free.  Free from outcomes and expectations, free from pressure to perform.  They say that Einstein’s best ideas came when he daydreamed, unbound by the pressures and realities of life.  He let his imagination run wild and out of the void emerged insights way too crazy to be thought of anywhere else.  These insights would come to revolutionize our world.
  4. Music – Music has an incredible power on us, it can compel emotions and shift thoughts.  I have a playlist I call “epic music” made up of songs that pull me, cause me to get into a higher state of mind and foster inspiration. (Here is a link to my playlist)
  5. Role models – The walls of my bedroom are covered with posters of social innovators of the past.  People like Gandhi, Mandela and Einstein.  I study their lives, learn from them and through that I am fortified in my belief in humanity and the possibility of social change.
  6. Videos – News and video feeds are dominated by negativity, people at their worst.  To counter this, I have created a playlist of videos that show humanity at its best, embodying for me who I think we can become.  These videos fortify my belief in this vision and inspire me to push for it. (Here is a link to my playlist)
  7. Conversations – A year ago I had a month off so I traveled across the country seeking out conversations with social innovators.  These conversations allowed me to connect with their passion and vision which resonated with my own.  Their stories inspired me to be more and do more.  Finally, these conversations served as an arena for me to process ideas and possibilities with the help of others.  We often talk of spiritual practices as being a solitary endeavor but I believe they can be communal as well.
  8. Nature – For me the greatest inspiration has always been nature itself.  This is where the flow of life is at its most vivid, unbound by the structures of humanity.  Listening to the birds and the crickets I think should be a daily ritual for everyone.
  9. Physical activity – Beyond being good for my health, I find physical activity helps release pent up energy and stress that is blocking my ability to be present and to listen.  I find I am the most at peace immediately following a good intense game of soccer.
  10. Self Reflection – Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”   We spend so much of our life acting without thinking.  For me, building reflectiveness into my life has been very important in making sure my actions are in line with the mission and purpose that I feel compelled to live.  It allows me to bring more intentionality to what I do but also a level of awareness of what is emerging.  Journaling has been the habit I have developed to help with this.

What about you?  What are some of your spiritual practices?  What fuels and drives you as a social innovator?  Share it hear and lets get the conversation started.







What a great blog Derek!

You really captured the beauty and turmoil of thinking outside the box. I especially loved your helpful list of things that help bring peace and inspiration to your work and passion. Thanks for the links to the playlists... recommendations from like-minded people are such a great tool to help eliminate al the noise. I appreciate this.

I would like to add to your list that carving out time and activities and building community with people who are eager to share ideas and work on projects with me is incredibly energizing. It empowers me and drives me to move things forward.

In adding to your point on stillness, Al Etmanski discusses the idea of "resurrecting the ordinary". I like this idea of finding inspiration and magic in the day to day. It doesn't always have to be about something big. Sometimes finding joy in the everyday tasks can really shift my perspective and choices.

Thanks soo much again for this little inspiration this morning.