In January, I wrote an articleexploring what post-secular spirituality might be in our society, with yoga as an example. This is a topic that is of great interest to me not primarily in yoga or spiritual practice per se, but in the field of international development where I've worked for the past 13 years. And, there's probably no place more wanting for a way to include secular and spiritual truths than in international development...
Psychologist, James Fowler's (1981) research showed how what humans are ultimately concerned about develops over one's life. Historical evidence of this evolving 'ultimate concern' can be seen in three broad ways that faith is expressed and engaged: faith in animism, faith in a theistic God, and faith in secularism. In the field of international development, particularly in developing countries, often these three expressions of faith are simultaneously present and intersecting. Some indigenous communities retain animistic spirituality while the majority of nationals subscribe to religions of one type or another, with most international development practitioners bringing a secular worldview for the most part stripped of spirituality altogether (which, according to Fowler, is itself another form of faith). Animistic, traditional, and post/modern values can clash, and it can get messy. My questions are: How can our understanding of faith and spirituality be more skillfully included in international development? What might be a post-secular approach to development practice, that includes both secular and spiritual truths in development work?
The relevance of these questions is three-fold, and is probably a good place to begin.
Firstly, a secularized field of international development assumes that faith is childish and must be out-grown while, at the same time, most of the beneficiary communities are made up of people of faith. The rise of modernity with rationality and industrialization as its hallmarks, resulted in a rigid separation of science and spirituality/religion, with the former rising to become the sole perspective of interpreting reality, the universe and everything else, and the latter being exiled in the name of secularity from academic discourse, the practice of life, and also, for the most part, development work.
This modern, secularizing trend can be seen in the rapid drop of church congregations in Western Europe and Canada, while, at the same time, church congregations are actually increasing in places like Africa and Latin America. "The center of gravity of Christianity moves ever southward," reports the book by Philip Jenkins, New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, and demonstrates how most people in the developing world interpret religion traditionally and identify as 'people of faith.' Which is to say: the very people who are often participants and beneficiaries of development project are usually people of faith, while the northern practitioners for the most part aren't. This isn't necessarily problematic, but it atheistic assumptions/biases may overlook important components of faith-powered resilience.
Though, this wasn't always the case in development. The religious communities worldwide had a large influence in the contours of the development field today and have moved millions of dollars of relief money to those in need. But, these faith-based forms of development were (and are) predominantly held as charity, whereas the rest of the field of international development has moved through distinguishable post/modern phases such as partnership, partage or accompaniment, to recipient-led programming. The trend moving from a firmly held us-and-them boundary towards unification. Today, the predominant discourse is set at these later post/modern expressions, gaining a sophistication of ethics and an increasing sense of interconnection amongst nations. What was gained from this shift was a secular set of ethics that informs the discourse of the field, but what was lost was a connection to spirituality, as religion was transcended but not included.
Getting back to how this lands for international development practitioners... Basically, the exported secularity from the developed world requires them to practice an approach to development practice that is shorn of spirituality (or at least public displays of spirituality). Perhaps a prayer is allowed to be included at the start of a meeting, but the core essence of spirituality is simply not welcome in the predominant secular discourse that guides this field. This is also the case for developing country practitioners, even as, in many cases, the spiritual dimension of this work is precisely what motivates them to engage in it (seen as a faith-based or a spirituality-inspired service). What would it feel like to be able to practice development without having to check their ultimate concern at the door? What aspects of human resilience, inspiration, and insight do we actually lose in cutting spirituality out? Rather than treating people of faith in developing countries like their engagement with religion is wrong, immature or outdated, we need to find a more skillful and respectful way to engage the spiritual dimension of what it means to be a human being as part of international development practice.
Secondly, while the dogma of religion is prone to complications and divisions, the essence of spirituality is often a source of insight, creativity, compassion, and love—the very things we need more of in international development, not less. By distinguishing between the exoteric and esoteric—the traditional containers of religion versus the mystical truths they elucidate—we can begin to integrate spirituality in a post-secular way that supports greater effectiveness in development. As Wilber says, we have to be careful not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater," and need to find a way to retain the central core truths of spirituality while also discerningly discarding that which no longer serves, such as, religious divisiveness, ethnocentric thinking, and required conformity that stifles human imagination and innovation, and so forth.
And thirdly, specifically in times of intense difficulty and change, it is our sense of ultimate concern—our faith however we hold it—that often is where we source our strength and resilience. This third angle is one I'd like to explore in greater depth here.
With examples from our current project in El Salvador on an integral approach to climate change adaptation and community resilience, this article considers a post-secular approach to development. The view shared here is born out of respect for the many communities of faith worldwide and recognition that the spiritual dimension of humans is always present, regardless of how it might be ignored by a secular modern approach. That spiritual dimension has been, is, and can continue to be a source of great resilience in turbulent times.
More than Rain
"So, how did you get through in the refugee camp? What did you draw on to gain strength?" reiterated Bobby Caceres, my Salvadoran colleague, to a local man who'd survived the 12-year civil war in the 1980s. It had been a time of massacres, inequality, and bloodshed, not one that is easy to talk about. "What did you rely on to move through it?" Bobby asked again, and I felt my chest tighten, fearing that he was pushing too hard on a topic that is clearly traumatic and sensitive.
The man was sitting forward on his seat, looking a bit anxious by the question. There was a pause. Slowly, he sat back into his chair, his spine lifting, a calm settled around him. And in a quiet, firm and strong voice, he said, "Fe." Faith.
Chiming in, another woman at the meeting said, "Hope."
And another, "Positive thinking."
All of these answers point to some of the very questions we are exploring in this project (i.e. how do people get through crisis; how do they respond to disaster and be resilient in the face of change?) as well as some of the assumptions in our approach (i.e. that resilience will be both external and internal). One of our central theses in this project is that interiors matter; that the interior landscape of what it means to be human, such as our inspirations, worldviews, and values, greatly influence our ability to be resilient. However, we hadn't actually anticipated the topic of spirituality would arise in this project so soon, or so frequently.
As he said this, I mused on how in the secularized field of development, often comments like his that veer towards religion are not welcomed and actively discouraged. That simple answer, "Faith" would be explained away, in the interpretive framework of modernity or postmodernity. With an Integral approach, we are willing and open, in this project, to include this interior domain generally and spirituality and faith in particular as valid and important sources of resilience.
So, what do we mean by resilience? Salvadoran campesinos described it thus: "resistance is like a stone, whereas resilience is like a branch that bends." We need more capacity to bend like branches in the face of global issues that keep shifting the ground beneath our feet. Deaths from HIV/AIDS shift entire demographics of nations. Emerging democracies teeter in their enactment of good governance, as age-old dictatorships sway and fall. Unpredictable weather events disturb the very seasonal patterns on which agrarian livelihoods depend. How can we bend like branches, and what are our sources for resilience? Are there some common ingredients, or a deep structure, to how resilience emerges? Can we better understand this deep structure, and then create conditions more likely to give rise to resilient ways of being?
With the Canadian non-profit organization Drishti - Centre for Integral Action, I am coordinating an action research project in El Salvador on climate change adaptation and community resilience with our Salvadoran partner organization, Centro Bartolome de las Casas. Using an innovative combination of methodologies that integrate first-, second-, and third-person perspectives (which I explain more about later in this article), we are seeking to understand what are the sources of resilience and adaptation that local people draw on in times of difficulty, particularly when confronted by the realities of climate change. Some of those sources are external but many are also internal. Resilience is a term that comes from the physical sciences and then when it became incorporated into a social movement it was primarily as an ecosystem science. Yet, resilience includes more than just scientific, ecological, and technological ways to address those changes in the ecosystem. It also includes the ways in which a culture responds to dramatic changes to its inherent fabric, how a consciousness withstands psychological shocks, and how life skills and practices shift to adapt to a changed context.
In other words, it's about more than rain.
Though it includes rain. In El Salvador, the rainy season is coming later and later than expected, and is shorter and more torrential than ever before. This strikes at the very root of an agrarian livelihood, which adeptly depends on the predictability of weather patterns for planting and harvesting. This year, late, torrential rains and flooding meant that frijoles, beans, could not been harvested. Nicaragua too has shortages and will not export to El Salvador. The national food, papusas, will be in short supply and pupsarias – the small businesses that sell them - may have to close.
For anyone who's spent even a day in Central America, you'll recall how essential beans and corn are as staple foods that not only provide a complete protein but that define a culture and the self-identity of a people. This is far closer to our reality that we may like to believe. What would it be like for the Canadian west coast culture to no longer have salmon or for Quebec not to have maple syrup? All these are realistic scenarios in today's climate change context.
News stories like this abound across the world. The point perhaps less highlighted is: what impact will changes in climate have on our culture and consciousness? How do we bend like branches in the face of these disturbances? These are not hard questions to ask since, again and again in the face of hardship, people and communities are resilient. Against all odds, resilience seems to emerge, and often that resilience is sourced in one's psychology, mindset, or attitudes, including one's spirituality.
"The impacts of climate change affect and are affected by the ways that individuals and communities adapt. Adaptation includes a range of coping actions that individuals and communities can take, as well as psychological processes (e.g., appraisals and affective responses) that precede and follow behavioral responses." (Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges, p. 29,)
This has me deeply considering the many ways in which the field of international development preferences a) scientific and rational modes of engagement and b) secular and non-spiritual interpretive frames, possibly at the expense of accessing resilient, innovative, and inspired forms of action that are drawn from a practical spirituality. How can the subjective dimensions of resilience be integrated with other climate change adaptation efforts?
But before I get to that, let's look at resilience more closely.
Reflections on Resilience
While extensive definitions exist for 'resilience', the Canadian and Salvadoran team working on this project does not attempt to put forth yet another. Rather, we inquire into the deep structures of the conversation—what is shared between these different definitions and approaches, and what might that tell us about how we engage in resilience work? In other words, we are interested in the patterns for how resilience emerges, and less the concrete definitions. We are primarily looking for principles and patterns of responses to change.
The first pattern we noticed was the tendency for resilience to be defined depending on where the cause of suffering was located. If one sees that suffering arises because of inequities in the system, then they are more prone to framing resilience as that which arises to confront and resist that inequitable system (politicizing the issue, advocacy, etc). If one sees that suffering arises because of ecological collapse, they will focus their efforts on making the ecosystem more resilient (building dams, dykes, etc.) If one sees suffering to originate due to broken or inequitable relationships (i.e. men/woman, North/South, rich/poor), then the tendency is to see resilience as arising in reconciliation between factions and a leveling of the playing field. If one sees that suffering is born within the very fabric of what it means to be human (e.g. as described by the first Noble Truth in Buddhism), then resilience will be sought from an internal source within. Of course, there are many overlapping approaches and many integrations between these; they are not watertight containers. However, pointing it out helps to elucidate where and how one's understanding of suffering co-arises with one's sense of resilience.
This also helps us resolve an age-old debate between genetics and evolution, namely, does resilience emerge through growth and thus can be taught, or is resilience something one is simply born with. We acknowledge that the latter is possible; that there may be something inherent that predisposes one towards resilience—and yet WHAT that exactly is is not discoverable (and if we tired to name it we'd only fall into metaphysics). So for our purposes it remains acknowledged but not defined, as a beautiful part of the Mystery of life. The former is the aspect of resilience that we can and do engage with, the form that does evolve, can be learned, or can be incorporated into a system. This is a key assumption for this research project: resilience can and does evolve. Our questions concern how it does so (through learning, reflection, action, time?) and how to then link it with adaptive strategies for climate change.
Secondly, we began to wonder about the practice of building resiliency. The Global Resiliency Network lists three components in the process of building resiliency:
- Resiliency is like a muscle that resides within all individuals and organizations, a muscle that must be developed in advance and consistently exercised.
- This muscle must be both strong enough to withstand severe challenges and flexible enough to handle a wide range of unpredictable forces.
- Being resilient requires us to embrace and practice paradoxical qualities - both for individuals as well as organizations.
(Retrieved, July 4, http://www.globalresiliency.net).
The northern department of El Salvador, Chalatenango, is renowned for its community resilience during the armed conflict. Those communities have practiced resilience for over 20 years, developing the ‘muscle’ of resilience. They withstood severe challenges with an unforeseen strength. Being practically at the whim of other forces and decisions elsewhere, these communities had to be flexible to navigate a changing, unpredictable landscape politically, socially and emotionally. One can only imagine the extent to which embracing paradox was required for survival. Can the resilience built during these experiences be drawn upon and transferred to meeting today’s challenges of climate change?
Finally, we began to shift our understanding of resilience from 'resilience is' to 'resilience as' and found that it assisted us in keeping the inquiry open. Resilience as response patterns,... resilience as relationships to one's context,... resilience as learning,... resilience as self- and social-coherence.
In this ongoing inquiry, we are using quadrants, stages, and states of the Integral approach in a particular way. I'll share a bit about this here, but watch for more on these details all in a later piece of writing. Wilber describes in Integral Theory, how I, We and It (expanded as the quadrants of experience (I), culture, (we), behaviour (it) and systems (its)) as irreducible dimensions of reality that are important for any comprehensive approach. They reflect the first-person, second-person, and third-person perspectives on reality. We are including these perspectives in our research methodology, using photo voice as a way to engage first-person perspectives in exploring climate change adaptation. With community discussions and focus groups we are engaging second-person perspectives to interpret the meanings of the photos, to discern a collective message from the photos, and to engage policymakers. And, we are drawing on third-person perspectives through researching climatological data and creating draft community strategic plans for adaptation to climate change.
In terms of stages, we aren't so much taking a developmental approach to resilience, but rather we are allowing and including an understanding of psychological development into our understanding of how resilience arises. By using photo voice, participants are examining climate change through their own experience, peering through their own lenses, via the camera. Photo voice mines deeper shafts into a different part of human consciousness than do words-alone interviews. And, it allows the photographers to make meaning of climate change in their own mental models and worldviews. This is compared to the more usual approach whereby the community is told about climate change in complex, foreign scientific terms that not only risk being misaligned with the meaning-making frames of local people and thus misunderstood but may also prove to be disempowering for local people. We selected this methodology so to be more connected to people's lived reality and consciousness, as well as to evoke resilience in the process.
In considering states of consciousness, we are curious about how certain states help people access uplifting emotions, like positivity or hope, that enable a person to be more resilient. Perhaps 'being resilient' itself is a state of consciousness; and if so, how can it be fostered? The claim made by long-time meditation practitioners is that as meditation deepens, one's sense of fear radically drops away. How does one's spiritual practice of moving through deeper states of consciousness then bolster one's ability to be resilient to change? These are important patterns in responses to change—there might be states of consciousness that support our ability to be resilient—as the answers, "faith", "hope", and "positive thinking" suggested above.
This is some of the thinking behind this project, keeping us intrigued, open, explorative. We anticipated interiority would play some type of role in resilience, but we didn't realize that the spiritual themes would arise as quickly and frequently as they have.
Faith as Resilience
We visited another senora at her house behind the convent in the center of town. At first, she was preparing papusas and tending the fire. Her hands moved with an unpresuming agility; quickly, firmly shaping the corn paste into round disks to put onto the curved flat pan resting over the fire. She came over to talk with us, once the cooking was complete.
Asking us a little bit about us, she then dropped into a reflective space about the war... how it had been such a hard time, with unspeakable atrocities, so hard that it is difficult to talk about it...and yet, she said, what was even harder was to be criticized by others in society after so much suffering. Her energy became heavy, sunken into her memory of the experience.
The armed conflict in El Salvador was about justice and democracy. Prior to that point, the country was run by the infamous "14 families" who owned most of the land, with the vast majority of the population living on the remaining fragments. In the 1970s, the people organized to demand that the country be run more justly. Due to the fear of communism spreading in that region so close to home, the Salvadoran military was supported by the United States by the tune of a million dollars a day in arms. While the left-wing resistance was armed too, it was to a much lesser extent. Anyone asking for a more just, democratic governance was considered an enemy, and so thousands of people were killed or 'disappeared' throughout those long, hard years. When the dust cleared, 75,000 were dead on both sides of the conflict, hundreds of thousands fled as refugees to other parts of the world, and the country's infrastructure was devastated.
This senora, as she cooks over the fire, surely holds in her memory the events that transpired in her community. In the nearby River Sumpul, the 600-person massacre of mainly women and children, the families who fled to live in caves in the mountains a mere walk from her house, the ominous 'white hand' that Death Squads would paint at night on the doors of those who'd be 'disappeared' the following day if they didn't flee the country immediately (one such painted hand remains to this day on a neighbor's door). There's a tendency to focus on these exterior aspects of suffering, and thus to focus reconciliation and resilience there. And yet that evening, as she spoke to us, her heart became heavy at how difficult it was to be judged after the events themselves—judged from the vantage point of a now-democratized state with no connection to the difficult decisions made during a time of conflict. There was honour and justice in the acts of those times—it was, in a sense, the 'most appropriate next thing to do'—and yet, in the comforts of today, in which there are democratic rights for all Salvadorans, it is all to easy to judge the events of the past.
In that moment, it came across like what had really deeply hurt her may have been less the bombs, the fleeing, the hunger, and perhaps as much or more to have lived through that and then been criticized by others. The acidic feeling of criticism added on top of hardship, the lack of human understanding, the breaking of relationship, the tearing of the relational field of community... who knows exactly what aspect of this had so hurt her, but it sounded like the interior dimensions had lingered in her mind more acutely, less the actual aspects of a broken, unjust system. It expanded me to consider how one characterizes 'suffering' depends on one's own consciousness, which then directly relates with how one characterizes adaptation and resilience.
Our research is seeking to include all these forms of how suffering arises, because they then point to diverse sources of resilience residing in these various dimensions of being. That is, resilience is not just about ecosystems and social systems that can adapt and 'bend like branches' in the face of rapid change. It can also be about the cultural and community resilience to be collaborate and be creative together. And it can also be about the very personal forms of resilience that are often sourced inside and supported by whatever 'ultimate concern' we hold dear.
As the dusk settled around us, this woman gave voice to this theory... She rested for just a breath—remembering people's criticism of the form their resilience had taken during the war—before then lifting herself out of it by remembering a saying that the much-loved priest in the local church used to say, "even if someone breaks your morra (the husk of a squash made into a container for water), you still continue." This saying reflects the biblical teaching that if Jesus not only survived pain and ridicule, but also transcended it, then surely, as a follower of him, you can do the same in a circumstance of lesser intensity. "Jesus se cayo, y se levanto", Jesus died and rose again, meaning that even if you suffer, you too can rise up out of suffering. It seemed that these phrases provided her a way to make meaning of the suffering in the larger view of what she was ultimately concerned about, showing us how profoundly her faith had been her resilience.
With this story in mind, I start this piece as I began: with great regard for the ways that our sense of ultimate concern can be a source of great resilience, and wondering how the field of international development can make space for these deep dimensions of what it means to be human. My sense is that it'll need to move beyond its secularity-over-spirituality, towards a secularity-and-spirituality—a post-secularity—which is what we are experimenting with in such a project. Sure, it'll be hard to work it out practically, with great care not to undo the many hard-won secular truths, with many difficult questions to answer, new ethical spaces to delineate, and more freedom from the stranglehold of our own preferences and cultural assumptions. But, definitely worth doing. This interior domain of the self, including our spirituality, is already a well to which people draw water in times of difficulty, and the field of international development would do well to recognize that and make room for it.
I'd like to acknowledge and thank the entire team of researchers and practitioners working on this project in El Salvador, including Roberto Cáceres, Monica Flores, Larry José Madrigal, Walberto Tejeda, Héctor Núñez González, Rutilio Delgado, Hanna Kvamsås, Lauren Tenney and Dr. Karen O'Brien. We express appreciation to Canada's International Development Research Centre for their financial support.
American Psychological Association's Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change: Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges. Retrieved, August 8th, 2011: http://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change.aspx
Fowler, James W. (1981). Stages of Faith, Harper & Row
Wilber, Ken. (1998, reprint ed. 1999) The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. Boston: Shambhala
Wilber, Ken (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala
Wilber, Ken (2006). Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World.