Charlene Spretnak’s “Relational Reality”: An Illuminating Read By Gina Messina-Dysert


I have long been interested in the work of women’s spirituality movement’s founding mother Charlene Spretnak; thus when her newest book, Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness that are Transforming the Modern World, was released I was anxious to read it.  To no surprise, I found it a brilliant, stimulating, and vital work.

In Relational Reality, Spretnak explains that we have “missed the way the world works” as a result of our cultural tendencies.  “The failure to notice that reality is inherently dynamic and interrelated at all levels – including substance and functioning – has caused a vast range of suffering” (1). Spretnak offers “snapshots” of the various crises we face within education and parenting, health and healthcare, community design and architecture, and the economy with purpose;  to name the suffering and hardship endured within the world and demonstrate that these crises are the result of anti-relational thinking.  She states these problems cannot be corrected until they are acknowledged; “Only then can we grasp the significance of the relational breakthroughs and solutions that are emerging” (20).

Following each crisis “snapshot”, Spretnak discusses emerging relational approaches that are already transforming our lives.  As a teacher and hopefully soon to be parent via adoption, I found the chapter on education and parenting to be particularly captivating.  While modernity has led to high levels of functional illiteracy, lack of critical thinking, poor social skills, and narcissism, relational factors within education have resulted in high levels of academic success.  Spretnak explains that rather than money or class size, “relational trust” between teachers, students, parents and administration is what has led to positive outcomes within education.  She states, “Cultivating relational trust…turns out to be the secret of success” (40).  Efforts to revitalize our lives include ecoliteracy and relational knowledge programs.  Students who have been concerned about specific issues or feel connected to a certain cause are drawn to pragmatic solutions allowing for a relational shift.

Likewise, efforts within health care, community design, and economy are resulting in the revitalization of our communities.  Various types of eco-therapy are being successfully utilized to relieve symptoms of ADHD and stimulate memory in Alzheimer’s patients.  The City Repair movement, which seeks to enliven urban areas through the work of volunteers, has spread nationally.  Organic architecture has created buildings that are in harmony with nature and allow for “daylighted” spaces that reunite our bodyminds with the sun.  Grassroots aid organizations that focus on co-creating with communities have been incredibly productive in rebuilding economy.  Although crisis clearly exists, the examples of revitalization and relational shift are many.

In the final chapter, “Stepping Up,” Spretnak calls for us to make the relational shift by learning to live and discern in relational ways.  She explains that in the Western world, we “hardly have the necessary vocabulary to shift our thoughts and utterances to a more deeply relational orientation. Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested we think of existence as matter of interbeing. We interare. They interare. Everyone interis. Our bodymind needs real connection with the embodied presence of other people and with nature” (201-2).

According to Spretnak, “Communion with nature…enables us to be our true, caring, generous, and expansive selves. It seems to free us of the psychological restrictions – self-absorption, disengagement, and diminished empathy – commonly imposed by modern, industrialized cultures, which are proudly devoted to progressing in opposition to nature” (202).

In a world where emails and text messages are our primary form of communication, our work environments are enclosed structures with artificial lighting, and our communities depend on global economics for survival, our relational abilities have suffered greatly.

Spretnak offers an illuminating read by providing an eye opening look at the crises we face as a result of modernity as well as the scientific evidence that supports the relational way our world works.  Optimism is imbued throughout her work with the countless examples of efforts that are revitalizing our communities and initiating a Relational Shift in the collective conscious of humanity.  However, there is much work that needs to be done, and thus Spretnak calls us to recognize this and live in relational ways.

Charlene Spretnak is one of the Founding Mothers of the Women’s Spirituality movement. She is the author of eight books, including The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics, States of Grace and Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-emergence in the Modern Church. She is a professor in the Women’s Spirituality graduate program in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies. For further information about her books, see www.CharleneSpretnak.com. 



Categories: Activism, Relationality, Review

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3 replies

  1. Gina,

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Certainly Charlene Spretnak will be added to my list of books to read. I love the discussion regarding relationality. It is so relevant in every aspect of life. In a dotcom world were everything is automated or we speak through text, chat, e-mail etc., personality and personhood is becoming robotic and cold. With that, comes reading and mis-reading, which leads to misunderstanding, miscommunication, and an ultimate distancing. Simply we are becoming anti-social or socially in-ept beings losing the ability to interact face to face. The problem with that, humans are social beings.

    You quoted Charlene as communing with nature as freeing, this says two things. The first is, turn the phones and computers off and just be; take in your surroundings, breath the air, smell the flowers. *detach* I suggest that this is true by yourself or even sharing the experience with another. Life is so fast-paced, we need to learn to focus on each other, face to face, without distractions.

    Also through nature, comes meditation or prayer; a spiritual experience with the divine – a spiritual communing. Turning everything off and listening, praying, reflecting. meditating, – communing with the divine, is also a necessary component of balance as well as relationality.

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  2. What a wonderful book review! I hope we do more of these — I love having a sense of the cutting edge work of people in the field of women’s spirituality and women’s studies in religion.

    I think I’ve begun to understand a bit of what Spretnak talks about in this book. As you know, Gina, I’m becoming a less-meatitarian, hopefully someday leading to full vegetarian. In the past I had deliberately not associated what I was eating to the lives of the creatures all around me. I chose not to think much about where it was coming from, and how these animals were raised, but part of my ethical awakening in the last year has revolved around the idea of taking the lives and well-being of animals seriously, of not closing my eyes to what goes on in the factory farms. For me it’s a spiritual practice to decide to try to remove myself from a system which so completely separates and blinds me to the life and death of these animals. Of course, I don’t live up to my ideals all the time. But I’m hoping to get there someday.

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