What’s the hang up with the sacred?

Collective Change Lab
7 min readFeb 6, 2023

By Tad Khosa & John Kania

Mainstream social problem solving must recapture humanity’s use of sacred practice to access deeper wisdom and inspire transformative action.

Co-author Tad Khosa shares this reflection:

Arriving at a modest home, I am greeted by an old woman. She leads me into a small room where there are several items such as bones, shells, and herbs. She asks what help is needed and why there’s a feeling of being lost and unsure about my direction in life.

I am in the home of a sangoma — a traditional healer or diviner who employs music, dance, and relics from the natural world to identify illness and bring about health. The sangoma performs a ritual with me, throwing bones and interpreting my dreams, to diagnose the problem. She prescribes a treatment, which includes a mix of traditional medicines and spiritual rituals and practices. All in an effort to provide guidance and advice on how to live in harmony with the spirits and ancestors. The sangoma then performs a healing ceremony which involves blowing smoke from burning herbs over my body and chanting. A sense of warmth and meditative peace washes over me. After the ceremony, the sangoma gives me a small bag of herbs and instructions on how to use them and guidance on how to continue my journey and find my purpose.

Ancestral guidance, traditional medicine, and the sacred more broadly play a significant role in African culture, deeply rooted in the cultural beliefs and practices of many communities. There is a natural and casual connection to ancestors and an invitation of the sacred in all forms of life as a source of wisdom and guidance.

Sangomas are called to heal, and through them it is believed that ancestors from the spirit world can give instruction and advice to cure illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties. Objective proof is not part of the experiential training to become a sangoma. One must put cognitive, left-brained intellect aside. Obsession with data obliterates the intuitive.

Sangomas are so central to South African life that they have a major presence in the central business district of Johannesburg in a space called the Faraday Muthi Market. Faraday’s location in the middle of the business hub of South Africa’s largest city, surrounded by modern skyscrapers, is a visual reminder of how widely accepted it is for multiple ways of knowing to co-exist.

While the integration of the sacred and the secular is the natural way of South African life and many other non-Western cultures, it remains rare in much of Western mainstream society. As Western institutions break down in every direction — siloing the sacred from the rest of life at both the personal and systemic levels — this is not only unnatural, it is depleting our ability to creatively and with firm foundations address the existential crises of our time.

Humanity is challenged as never before and we are unwittingly leaving a principle resource for the work — the sacred — to one side. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals are one of the defining frameworks being used across the globe to align social and environmental problem solving efforts. Yet, the principal asset brought to bear to address the SDGs is humankind’s rational thought. While this reliance on the rational has produced technical advances, the SDGs have been profoundly less effective in creating collaborative action in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and where virtues such as wisdom, humility and grace are given equal value to intellect. Within the SDGs, the absence of spiritual and sacred practices that humbly seek wisdom in the face of humanity’s “wicked problems” is palpable.

Of course for many people — particularly in the West — the notion of seeking spiritual guidance may seem too far afield from their own worldview and of questionable relevance to cognitively based problem solving processes. Furthermore, while sacred practice may bring inspiration and connectedness for some, others see highly undesirable qualities in the sacred such as stridency, rigidity, exclusion, violence and even moral turpitude. This is understandable. Over the course of human history the sacred and spirituality have been closely intertwined with religion. And indeed, while the existence of religion (e.g. its texts, its mystics, its saints and its service to the poor) has inspired much good in the world, the institution of religion — and the patriarchy controlling it — has created significant damage and left countless victims in its wake.

What we are talking about here is a notion of the sacred that is not anchored in institutional religion but in the fullness of human development and our relationship to a universal source. We see spirituality and the sacred encompassing qualities such as: creating space for profound experiences of awe and wonder, finding a deep sense of connection to our shared humanity, accessing something greater than ourselves, and being in touch with divine inspiration, ancient wisdom and grace.

Experiences such as these are available to everyone. They are available both within religion and without. And they are sorely missing from most mainstream social and environmental problem solving efforts.

We humbly suggest that integrating the sacred into collaborative social and environmental problem solving work could make a powerful difference in the quality of the efforts. When we integrate the sacred — relating to everything as sacred — we can relate to ourselves as sacred too. And this relationship, shaped by love and devotion, can bring about a profound transformation in how we live and engage in life. This inner-to-outer connection is essential for a deep transformation of our social change practices.

In our experience the qualities of integrating the sacred into collaborative work include:

  • Centering participants within themselves to better enable deep listening and to mitigate reactive thoughts and action
  • Increasing energetic flow between people, decreasing power dynamics and thereby elevating collective creativity
  • Supporting a shift in the narrative tone towards hope, even as difficult realities are acknowledged
  • Connecting the present to the past in a way that honors and draws guidance from the community’s legacy of traumas, passages and joys
  • Helping those involved surrender to not-knowing, in order to deepen intuitive faculties and access unseen wisdom
  • Opening space for divine and nature inspired emergence of solutions that weren’t apparent before

For most mainstream social sector organizations and collaboratives, integrating the sacred remains anathema. But increasingly, mainstream organizations engaging with the sacred are experiencing and supporting profound transformational change and progress against the social problems they are addressing.

Take Massachusetts-based youth development non profit Roca. Roca integrated sacred rituals learned from the Tagish Tlingit people in the Yukon Territories, such as burning sage, performing spoken word poetry, and passing a talking stick in the peacemaking circles they facilitate between police officers, corrections officers, and youth who are affected by urban violence. Roca’s approach has helped its criminal justice system partners ground their work in forgiveness, empathy, and love. Police and corrections officers who have participated in peacemaking circles have demonstrated a willingness to change their standard policing and judicial practices, including new procedures to protect youth in dangerous situations and the introduction of support services for youth re-offenders.

Roca is not the only mainstream organization embracing the sacred in its work but they remain one of the few who do. Should integrating the sacred remain an exception, or is there an opportunity for Western mainstream organizations to embrace a new consciousness in their work?

We believe that it’s time we take a serious look at the mainstream social sector’s hang up with the sacred. Here are several questions we are holding that we hope to engage the broader field with:

  • Why is it that mainstream social problem solving rarely includes sacred practice while they are naturally integrated into ways of working in most non-dominant cultures? (e.g. indigenous and Global South)
  • Is there an avenue to explicitly naming the role of the sacred and spirituality in social and environmental problem solving efforts, or are the terms and associations with the sacred, particularly in Western society, too fraught with controversy and historical baggage?
  • What can we learn from cultures who integrate sacred practice into social problem solving about the ways they do this and the benefits they see?
  • How might sacred practice become more widely integrated into mainstream institutional social problem solving?

We look forward to your ideas and responses.