Leigh Meinert

April 2018

Leigh sharing the poem Of Love by Mary Oliver at the wedding of her friends Janet at Judy, December 2017

As this site is about genuineness, it felt appropriate to begin with myself in my capacity as the founder of Soulfullness. In the About section I wrote that, “I am not an expert in soulfullness but it is a journey I need to go on” and I would really like to emphasise this. I am, for example, the youngest person I know to have burnt themselves out. When I was thirteen I had to take a year out of school (and give up the major scholarship to a very prestigious high school that over-achieving me had earned) due to the debilitating effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Two years later, I was fired up again and I started my first NGO (called Youth with Vision) in the year 1994. I had a strong sense of purpose to help to nurture the next generation of Mandelas, Sisulus and Tutus and ten years later this led me to co-founding a not-for profit, free-to-student university called TSiBA), that I headed up for six years. It was a wild and wonderful ride – and there was a time in the midst of this when I had to put my hands up once again and my friend Karolien served me meals on trays for five weeks…

When I become a mom six years ago, I tried to find that elusive thing called balance and struggled, bitterly at times. I’ve recently spent the past two and a half years working closely with government and a number of large philanthropic organisations who are seeking to drive innovation in public, no-fee schools. The cause was extremely compelling and in no time I was waking up at 4am each day, just to try and pack it all in. I was dry and brittle on the inside, bland looking and out of shape on the outside.

I am looking for way to live a meaningful life that nourishes myself and others at the same time. I am thinking deeply about how I want to raise my two delicious girls (Camille, 6 and Rae, 3). I have a few answers but I mostly a lot of questions. So here they are…

What does soulfull living mean to you?

Soulfull living is a deeply personal matter. For me, it is about taking responsibility to craft a life that is rich in meaning and connection. Soufullness implies genuineness, depth and character and it calls me to find my unique way of being and serving in the world. I like to add an ‘l’ at the end to emphasise that this is about being full, because I want to live abundantly and generously. A la Sark, I want to feel rich and juicy on the inside and to have that reflected in my physical world too. I also yearn, as I believe many do, to live simply and I recognise that this requires a leap of faith and therefore courage.

Living in this way is so hard because it runs counter-culture in so many ways. I want to live a life that does not shy away from darkness, difficulty, complexity and pain. I want to find a way to work with and through what is difficult in order to transmute and genuinely heal.  I am not interest in quick fixes and bullet point how-to steps. I am interested in untold stories, the road less travelled, mistakes and missteps and how we keep picking ourselves back up, yet again and again, and keep going in faith.

What religious/ spiritual path do you follow?

After about twenty years of concerted searching (that started at the age of five, I was a precocious child) I found a home in Unitarian Universalism. The essence of this tradition, in my own words, is the belief that life an inherently sacred journey but that there are multiple routes to truth. Unitarians seek to create and provide a community for those who are searching, but it does not assert any dogmas. Atheists, agnostics and people from all religious traditions are welcomed. This can mean that Unitarianism is a bit too unstructured or amorphous for many but I love having a community where I can share my joys and sorrows, where there are some comfortable traditions and where my children are encouraged to be religious explorers.

What religious/ spiritual practices were you raised with?

Neither of my parents are religious and they probably would not describe themselves as spiritual (although I think they are both deeply so). So I was not raised with any formal practices bar Christmas, which was a secular affair where the emphasis was on the importance of family being together (and the exchange of gifts!).

I was drawn to look for more and was fascinated by an Eastern path that my maternal grandmother follows that is called Sant Mat. I loved going with her to satsang and was convinced that I’d be initiated into her path one day. I vividly recall receiving darshan from her Master when I was three years old. In her tradition, the greeting is “Radha Swami” (which means, “I see the Master in you”) and when this exquisitely compassionate and elegantly turbaned greying man looked into my eyes, bowed deeply and said those words to tiny little me it felt like my soul woke up.

My favourite picture of my grandmother’s master, Charan Singh Ji, with whom I experienced ‘darshan’ – a Sanskrit word for sight of a holy person – at the age of three

Because of my grandmother’s influence, I grew up believing that I was a soul who reincarnated for a reason and from the age of five I was actively seeking to find the meaning of this life of mine. Around this time, I insisted that my parents take me to church too and that I be baptised (as an Anglican). They duly did so but my search continued to widen and I read voraciously about all the religions and many spiritual paths as a teen. My first paid job, post-university, was a coordinator for the Youth Progamme of the 1999 Parliament of the Worlds Religions and it was here that I first learnt about Unitarian Universalism from Reverend Gordon Oliver.

How are you raising your children?

I am a mother to two girls and godmother to seven boys (ages 1 to 22). Four of my godsons are being raised as Christians and I hope and trust that I am a source of support to their parents in this. My partner feels a strong affinity to the Quaker tradition, that is his maternal line, and I have the deepest respect for this, especially as Quakerism has many similarities with Unitarianism.

I’d like my girls to grow up with something in the religious vein, even just so that they have something to rebel against and hopefully interrogate one day. I love that in the Unitarian tradition religious education is reframed as “religious exploration” and I am trying to expose my, still very young, children to this in a gentle way. My girls and I talk about their human/ body part and their ‘angel part’ which lives on after their body dies. Death in particular is something we try to normalise and have open conversations about.

This is how my daughter Camille welcomed her sister Rae in to the world in June 2014. There is a lot of pink in our home!

There is so much more that I’d like to do in terms of establishing a few simple rituals and traditions as well as our way of giving and tithing within our home and nuclear family. Raising young people with what I consider to be ‘good’ values is intimately tied to the society we live in and how we relate to our community. This is not a simple thing, in South Africa and in the privileged suburbs of Cape Town where we live especially, and I think a lot about what and how we role model for our children in this regard.

 What practices ground you?

Journaling has been a constant in my life and I have piles of beautiful books from over the years. Mostly, and almost inevitably, they end up containing to do lists. Nevertheless, writing has probably been the most consistent way in which I have been able to access and give space to the ‘still still voice within’.

Some of the many journals I’ve kept over the years in piles on my sunny writing table

I find deep nourishment in two consciously created small groups that I belong too. One is a monthly mindfulness group that I have been sitting with, off and on, for more than a decade now. The second is an annual high tea circle with those whom I consider to be my ‘soul friends’ that I created on the brink of turning thirty.  I’ve recently joined another monthly group called a Chalice Circle with the Unitarian Universalist tradition and I am enjoying learning more about the methodology behind small groups.

Observing the Sabbath is something I am trying to do more formally once again (having very young kids was quite prohibitive until recently) and for me the most effective way is to attend formal worship and reflection at the Unitarian Church on a Sunday morning.

Informally, I consider pottering to be a particularly delicious form of spiritual practice. Someone has probably written eloquently about this but for this homebody, tooling about at home (ideally with my children nearby and amusing themselves too) in a random (the dictionary defines it as ‘desultory’, my friend Karolien calls these ‘vark dae’) manner is vastly restorative. One day I hope I can put my finger on exactly why this fills me so, but I suspect that you know what I mean.

Nine years ago, I began a tradition of treating my (local) soul friends to high tea. Over time this small group has become a safe and sacred space for all of us

Finally, I’ve recently started Yo-Dance with “Miss Y” on Tuesdays at the Rondebosch Scout Hall. Thirty minutes of energetic dance followed by thirty minutes of calming yoga does wonders to lift my spirits and nurture my soul. I consider soul to be the meeting ground between spirit (our light, airy, visionary, angel aspect and earth (our grounded and sensual nature) and I am so appreciative of this inspiring and deftly guided opportunity to listen to and appreciate my body especially.

Do you have any daily routines?

As much I aspire to have wonderful spiritual daily practices, I don’t. So I’ve really lowered my expectations and, beginning anew this year, I’ve made flossing my new bar. It may sound silly, and decidedly unspiritual, but I have weak teeth and my ability to (mostly) do this one small thing for myself consistently each day is something I now celebrate and consider to be soulfull.

 What are the significant annual celebrations or rituals in your household?

I am drawn to rites and rituals but still have a long way to go in term of creating meaningful forms of these for myself and my small family. Christmas and birthdays are the most significant celebrations that we observe and I’d like to do more in terms of introducing simple, reliable and familiar ways that ‘we do things’ in our family. This requires a fair amount of creativity and energy, which has been in short supply in the early baby and toddler raising days.

What rites of passage have you experienced in your life that stand out for you?

I am fascinated about how we weave soul into the particular high and low points in our lives. In my life, there have been a number of standout moments, including the memorial service of a close friend who committed suicide when we were both fifteen. From the evening that we heard the news until a week later when his service was held, I had a palpable sense of the veil between the seen and unseen world thinning and the ceremony itself was a healing experience for me.

When I was eighteen, I felt compelled to create a ritual for myself. I obtained my driver’s license on my birthday and on that very day I drove out to Temenos in McGregor, in the early days when Billy Kennedy was starting to lay out what is now the most verdant of gardens. Once there, I held an all-night vigil and found ways using earth and fire to symbolically depict the things I wanted to release and let go of as I moved in to adulthood.

At the age of twenty-three when I was at a crossroads in my career, and feeling like a failure quite frankly, I participated in a week long Vision Quest that was facilitated by Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris, who have been mentors to me since my teens. This is a profound rite of passage that mirrors the Hero’s Journey that Joseph Campbell writes about and one that I subsequently trained to be able to facilitate.

Here is a TedX talk by Ntombiza Lingani, a TSiBA alumnus and friend of mine, who shares the profound impact the her experiences in the wilderness had on her.

A very special rite of passage that I absolutely loved was the naming ceremonies for my godson Jack and his sister Zoe. I helped my friends Iain and Julie to design these ceremonies after they adopted these angels and I asked Julie to write about it here.

More recently, I attended the most glorious union of my soul friend Janet to her beloved Judy. I adored the very conscious way in which they planned for a ceremony that embodied who they are in the world. All of us felt loved up by the end of that joyous night and I hope to profile them on this site soon.

 What are your favourite books and other resources for soulfull living?

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. I read this book twenty years ago and recently returned to it to find it more pertinent than ever. Thomas Moore is one of the modern vanguards of soulfullness and much about this site is thanks to what he has put in to words and made visible for me.

Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber. I read this exquisite book for the first time when I was sixteen and it is the only book that I try to return to consistently over the years. It is his most intimate book (it traced his deceased wife’s journey with breast cancer) and it manages to span life, love, the universe and all of it in the most staggering, heart wrenching and illuminating manner. This book is food for the head, heat and soul and quite simply my all-time best.

The Path of Love by Deepak Chopra. I am not a huge fan of Chopra’s but this little known book of his speaks directly to my heart and if I were to identify my one book of scripture then this would be mine because it provides a manual that is both practical and poetic for integrating spirit into daily life.

In my late teens I was moved by The Soul’s Code, a book that was written by James Hillman who is a mentor to Thomas Moore (author for Care of the Soul). I wanted to write a book that combined the wisdom that I found in this book together with Joseph Campbell’s writings about the stages about the archetypal stages of the Hero’s Journey and the role that myth plays in our life in a way that provided young people like myself with a practical path to “following their bliss”. At the time and extremely wise friend encouraged me to live my book instead of write it and, if I say so myself, I think I’ve done that pretty well to date! Now that two precious, and very different, souls have entrusted me with their lives here on Earth, this book has taken on even more significance.

Other books that help me on my soulfull journey are Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach, The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz and Living Juicy by Sark.

These two videos speak to how I’ve sought to weave soul in to my work in particular –

 Which places ground you and connect you to spirit?

In addition to my home, my special places are:

  • TSiBA Education. I had the privilege, many years ago now, of co-creating a learning institution that lives on today. Our vision statement at the time was “igniting opportunity” but I used to joke that our unofficial moto was “cool people unite”. TSiBA was designed to be, and still is, a very special place where people from diverse walks of life can participate wholeheartedly in the ongoing South African project of nation building.
  • Temenos is a remarkable interfaith retreat centre in the sleepy town of McGregor that Billy Kennedy has lovingly tended for over twenty years
  • Unitarian Church Cape Town is a beautiful sacred space in the heart of Cape Town, just off Long Street where worship and reflection have been held for over 100 years.
  • The Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape is indeed –“God’s country”, as someone once aptly described it me, and a place I long to return to again and again.
  • The Sea Point Promenade. Few things ground me as well as a walk on this beautiful strip of our city’s coast. This is one of Cape Town’s many natural sacred spaces where conversations and reflections of deep significance are gently held.

TSiBA means ‘to jump’ in isiXhosa

Who are your living teacher/ role models?

I consider myself lucky in that I have had quite a few and I hope to profile them here over the coming months:

  • Valerie Morris and Judy Bekker, got behind my very first BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) by sponsoring a workshop called Youth With Vision that I set out to run for fifty young people from all walks of life when I was fifteen years old. They have been in my corner ever since and remain remarkable role models of a rooted, authentic and gloriously vibrant way of being in the world that is connected to spirit at the same time. They also facilitated the eleven day long Vision Quest that I participated in when I was twenty-three.
  • Colin Hall was the executive head of both Woolworths and Truworths when he took me on as an intern for a month when I was finishing my undergraduate studies in leadership. This generous act of his profoundly enhanced the trajectory of my life. Here was a person who has bold enough to speak about love, abundance and God in the boardroom! He took me under his wing and has kept me there for twenty years now. His generous and magical way of looking at the world and at leadership has shaped how I design organisations and continue to seek to live my life.
  • As the head of the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Reverend Gordon Oliver was my very first boss. He introduced me to Unitarian Universalism and has facilitated the unions of so many special people in my life. This wise, gentle and understated soul has played many important roles in the city of Cape Town and someone I feel very lucky to have in my corner.

 How do you define your purpose at this stage in your life?

More and more I want to articulate and give expression to what soul looks like when it is woven in to our daily lives. I want to help to nourish people deeply and I want to be by their side at turning points in their lives. When I am truly old and wise I’d like to be a death doula, someone who helps to shepherd souls out, just as midwifes support and facilitate our entry in to this world.

What is your current edge or greatest challenge in terms of soulfull/ purposeful living?

Definitely partnership with one another human being. The concepts that inform soulfullness are lovely, but sharing and practicing them in partnership with a very different other with whom I share children, an old house, a big bond and so much more remains a daily challenge – particularly the parts about generosity and abundance. For this reason, I lean on and return constantly to books like Grace and Grit, The Path to Love and The Mastery of Love.

Any last words or reflections?

I’ve questioned myself many times as it seems easy and trite for a middle class white woman, in Africa especially, to espouse about soulfull living. I’ve decided to forge ahead as I genuinely believe and know that living with purpose and connection is not a luxury, but a necessity for all of us. In these pages and in the months ahead, I look forward to giving expression to how a diverse range of fascinating people are weaving soul in to their lives. I hope you have found some soul food in these pages and that you’ll sign up to read next month’s profile about a passionate educator called Kubeshini Govender.