A Spirituality for Social Change

“Transcendentalists were courageous in challenging tradition and injustice. Rather than being pushed around by history, they were great souls who instead tried to shape it—toward a more just, hopeful future. The Transcendentalists truly did change American history.” 

I love this quote. It’s edited so slightly, from Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice, by John A. Buehrens. All American students, and many abroad, are familiar with the writings and sentiments of Henry David Thoreau’s contemplative book Walden and perhaps the essay “Civil Disobedience.” Many will know of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but may not have read “Nature” or “Self-Reliance.”He describes the spiritual qualities of the movement we now know as Transcendentalism, which grew out of the Unitarian Church and conversations between students attending Harvard Divinity School in the 1830s. If you have read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, you’ll appreciate what an homage it was for this poetic luminary to identify Emerson’s writing as the source of his inspirations. 

 Now that we’re on the same page in the literary sense, and in a way I’ve stated my thesis, I can share why this is so meaningful to me personally and how it influences my writing. I feel spirituality is earthly. It contributes primarily to our experience of the here-and-now conditions of our world. If it is transcendent, it’s to help us through suffering. Rather than lift us above things, or elevate us to another place—whether heaven, a celestial plane, or even emotional distancing—it has the power to connect us with how things truly are. Including ourselves. 

While to many, this might ring of Eastern thought, psychology’s influence, or perhaps new-age spirituality, over the past few decades I have come to see my path as a commitment to engaging spirituality in practical ways. What is spirit if it cannot uplift our daily experience? Help us to be kinder to each other? Invite us to perceive nature with the wonder it deserves? And call us to learn and grow so we act in ways that benefit all? 

You are right to see my influences reflected in this. I was not raised to understand this human experience as the result of a divine vision by a being who watches over all, controls all, and judges in order to distribute blessings and punishments. My spirituality has always had agency to it; it has always involved acting to help human society become better at supporting people so they can thrive. It led me to practice and learn a form of Buddhism that sought to marry Eastern thought within Western contexts. I dove deep into this community, headlong, intoxicated by a vision for creating enlightened society. This involved month-long meditation retreats, a series of personal vows including to cultivate compassion for all beings, and a hours of daily practices with chanting, visualizing, honoring, and aspiring. For eighteen years, it shared the center of my heart and life with my work as an editor to make books that could fulfill the mission for a better world. 

It was about the time when I started doing social justice work that my relationship with this Buddhist community started to crumble. I don’t think this is coincidental. A chronic illness in 2016 made me unable to keep up with the community’s momentum of retreats and rigorous daily practices. I started to fall behind, and for the first of many times amidst them, I experienced the cultural chasm between their words and actions. While reassuring me that I remained a part of things, I was excluded as everyone else marched on with the program. Marginalized, I was no longer invited to events or gatherings, privy to insights and information, or nearly as respected. The hierarchy of their world slid me to second- or third-class citizen. Then, in 2018, a scandal involving sexual and physical abuses of power tore the community and the teacher apart. From my new, distanced, and perhaps more objective perspective, I wasn’t all that surprised. The spiritual ideals were not being lived within the organization, so when a brave soul shined light on shadows, a whole lot of dirt and detritus was revealed.

Even at my distance, I grieved. I roared with anger. I felt confused. I was torn about where to turn for spiritual nourishment. So I journaled. Went for walks in nature. Read books. Talked to people doing social justice work. Bought a home that offered me views out the windows and from the front porch, where I could sit, think, and muse. Any path I pursued, I decided, had to connect individual transformation with actual social change. 

That was when I started writing The Queen Bee series, to explore the influences and experiences of someone who acted for the great cause of women’s suffrage. In my research on the movers and shakers of reform in the second half of the nineteenth century, I uncovered how many had been Unitarians and Quakers—or leaders of the Transcendentalist movement. So I began hungrily reading primary and secondary sources on it.  

In Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul, Barry M. Andrews writes, “Their spirituality was very much in this world, characterized by a reverence for nature, an organic worldview, and sense of the miraculous in everyday life, an optimism about human potential, a search for what is universal in religion and human experience, a strong moral conscience, and an encouragement of the individual in her or his own religious quest.” On a personal level, he describes the activities of self-cultivation: solitude, contemplation, sauntering, simple living, reading, conversation, and journal writing. This was a path I was already following. I realized that, at heart, I am a Transcendentalist.

Can I consider myself to be a part of a uniquely American tradition that has no formal structure, no institution, and no living leaders or teachers? It is absolutely not a dead movement. The fabric of our modern society was powerfully influenced by their ideas. I am hungry to learn more, but not through outside sources. I want the book series’ protagonist, Annabelle Manning, to show me how her life, and her world, were transformed and guided by the radical ideas of her day. This is how I want to breathe fresh life into Transcendentalism, so it can speak to a modern reader, perhaps in life-benefitting ways. 

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