Last week I visited the townships in Johannesburg, South Africa. We were invited by Jeffrey, who grew up in the township Alexandra and wanted to take us on a tour through his world, by bike. It was an impressive tour through muddy streets with dead rats, piling garbage and lots of people living in tiny spaces. We passed countless shacks built out of cardboard and corrugated iron, with only a few brick houses for the ‘lucky ones’.

What I noticed were the cheerful and friendly faces, how clean and tidy most people looked, the hospitality I felt. I had difficulty conceiving it all. Me, being white, so aware of the painful history of this country. I was welcomed with open arms and big smiles. With every metre I cycled I felt myself becoming smaller, while my respect grew. I saw such dignity, strength, solidarity.

The brief visit to Alexandra made a bigger impression on me and taught me more than any spiritual teacher or retreat ever could. Over the years I had engaged in a lengthy spiritual path, during which I peeled away all the layers of ego bit by bit, during which it became apparent that my happiness isn’t dependent of who I am, what I own or what I mean to others, but instead how I relate to others.

In one go, all of my ego-structures collapsed

I covered this lengthy path again in just a few hundred metres, cycling through this immense township. In one go, all my ego structures collapsed and all I could feel was humility and deep respect towards Jeffrey and his fellow neighbours, who refused to become victims of the circumstances they grew up in.

Once more it became apparent that spiritual awakening can only take place in relation to others. You can meditate endlessly on your cushion, read spiritual books, and listen to spiritual teachers at inspiring conferences, but true transformation takes place there where you meet the other and discover how you relate to that person.

Only in relation to the other are you able to discover how you deal with your own pride, pain, anger, and sadness. In relation to the other you learn what true forgiveness entails, whether you choose to be a victim or choose for dignity. Whether you point your finger or are capable of understanding. Whether you are busy creating conditions others should meet, or whether you accept others for who they are. Whether you can see the other for the divinity he or she embodies.

We are part of a larger whole and dependent
on every motion that occurs in this larger whole

We are in relation. Life is relation. Nothing on this earth or in the universe stands alone. We live in one great big web of connections, where every motion affects everything else. The idea that we are independent beings with a free will is an illusion. We are part of a greater whole and not only dependent on the sun and nature for the air we breathe, but also dependent on each other to feel happiness and to let love flow.

In Alexandra, I experienced true brother and sisterhood. This touched me deeply. It touched me because this connectedness seems to be lacking in my own environment and society. Caught up in our wealth and luxury, we often live on small lonley islands. Unhappy, unsatisfied. Thinking back, I see the muddy streets, the dead rats, the piling garbage, and in the middle of it those smiling faces. And I take a deep bow for all those guru’s who managed to enlighten my path that afternoon.